Art and plague in the Middle Ages


When the plague reached Europe in 1348 it was seen as a divine punishment. How else to explain a disease that killed entire families with no regard for their station in life and wiped out as many as two-thirds of a city’s inhabitants?

Along with the civic disruption came a spiritual catastrophe. The plague struck so swiftly that it denied its victims the chance to indulge the rituals that eased the passage to death, said John T. Paoletti, Ph.D. ’67, professor of art history at Wesleyan University.

As the plague spread, artists turned to images of Madonna of the Misericordia and St. Sebastian, protectors against the plague, Paoletti said. Cherubic angels flinging arrows at their victims symbolized the still-unexplained plague as victims sought protection from saints and the Virgin Mary, who offered her cloak as a shelter. Medicine of the time offered little hope against the plague.

“Your salvation is dependent upon a confession, on other sacraments, sometimes the Eucharist,” he told an audience at the Program for Humanities in Medicine in April. “The doctor is dead. The confessor is dead. And if they’re not, they’re not going to come to your house.”