The Black Death and its Effect on Fourteenth and Fifteenth-Century Art
By Anna L. DesOrmeaux
Master’s Thesis, Louisiana State University, 2004
Abstract: In early October of 1347, ships from Caffa docked at the port of Messina in Sicily. The traders brought with them a fierce plague that swept through Europe from 1348 to 1352. This pandemic, which killed approximately half of Europe’s population, came to be known as the Black Death. The fear propagated by the spread of the plague and its cyclical recurrence greatly affected the art created in Europe over the next 150 years.
Accounts of victims of the plague and other contemporary documents, such as medical treatises, give modern readers a glimpse into the psyche of medieval people. These insights aid in understanding the symbols and subject matter of art that was created in the wake of outbreaks of the plague. Images of the physical manifestations of disease and images of death, such as the jolly skeletons in scenes of the dance of death, preserve medieval peoples’ preoccupation with and fear of death. Psychosocial responses are recorded in images of hysterical actions, such as the burning of Jewish people. The succor that was sought through adoration of religious images, such as saints and the Madonna, confirms that medieval people retained hope despite their fear. Both the resilient nature of humans and the fear initiated by widespread, sudden, gruesome death have been preserved in these images. Through this art, we discover that medieval people were not entirely unlike ourselves.