Artistic Expression during the Black Death


By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D.Purdue University

The arrival of the plague in the medieval world in late 1347 inspired a number of reactions especially in the form of artistic expression. Fear, increased religiosity, despair, cruelty, anti-Semitism, and violence are the dark clouds that overshadowed the medieval world between 1347-1353. But the silver lining came in the form of new and innovative forms of artistic expression.

An image of the Cathedral of Siena.
The Cathedral of Siena was completed before the Black Death struck Europe.
(Image: Rasto SK/Shutterstock)

An Artistic Attempt to Cope with a Tragedy

New subjects appearing in all kinds of painting, sculpture, wood-carvings, and other art forms are evidence of an attempt to cope with a serious tragedy. That beauty could emerge from such a horrific experience is one of the things that has long been a hallmark of what it means to be human. 

The desire to produce something positive out of horror is a reminder of how tough people can be—that knowledge is one of the great gifts that the Black Death has given to the ages, even in the midst of everything it took away. 

To be sure, many of the images are grim and negative—just as we’d expect—but the fact that they exist at all shows great human resilience. It would have been much easier to simply lay down the paintbrush, the chisel, or the pen and just wait for the inevitable.

This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating PlagueWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Never Completed Projects 

Indeed, in the immediate wake of the plague, many brushes, chisels, and pens were laid down, never to be picked up again. That’s because so many craftsmen and artisans died. Many of the people who produced art and architecture were gone, so many projects that we might think of as artistic were abandoned. 

An image of an ancient wall (part of the unfinished cathedral)
The Black Death got in the way of plans for enlarging the Cathedral of Siena, which to this day haven’t been implemented. (Image: John_Silver/Shutterstock)

For example, the great Cathedral of Siena, Italy, initially completed in the 13th century, was intended to be significantly enlarged according to plans drawn up in 1339.

Work had begun, but with the arrival of the plague, it stopped completely in 1348. Those plans were never executed, and you can see the faint remains of what would have been in the parking lot that’s adjacent to the cathedral today.

But, even as many artistic and architectural projects had to be abandoned in the wake of the plague, other works—particularly those that could be conceived of and executed by a single individual—came to be more popular, and several key themes became more pronounced and widespread in the art of the time. 

Learn more about the first wave of the Black Death in Europe.

Main Artistic Themes of the Time

Most of these artistic themes had been in existence before the arrival of the plague, but in the aftermath of the first wave of the Great Mortality, certain of them became almost omnipresent, while other, less grim or macabre artistic topoi languished because they didn’t seem quite right for the new world that had come into existence.

One very popular artistic trend was that of the three living meeting the three dead. This was part of a larger memento mori tradition, which translates roughly to something like remember that you are going to die. You could definitely say that by the end of the 14th century, pretty much everyone was well aware of this fact. 

Like most of the artistic trends during this period, this allegory as both text and image existed long before the plague appeared on the scene, but it gained in popularity as the Great Pestilence spread throughout the medieval world. In both the textual and visual versions of this story, three living men traveling on their way encounter three corpses. 

Sometimes the corpses are the ancestors of the men who are traveling; sometimes, the three people traveling are meant to be representatives of each of the Three Orders of medieval society—those who fight, those who pray, and those who work. Most often, however, the three living are from the nobility and the clergy—in several instances, we see a pope, an emperor, and a king depicted. In every case, though, the message is the same—you may be alive now, but someday, you’ll be dead like us.

Learn more about the end of the first wave.

De Lisle Psalter

Indeed, because many of the representations of this trope are found in illuminated manuscripts, we often have both the image and the narrative to accompany it. We see this very thing in a manuscript from the 14th century known as the De Lisle psalter. 

A psalter is a manuscript that’s primarily a collection of psalms, although it might contain other devotionally oriented works. Although the psalter is written in Latin, above the image of the three living meeting the three dead, the scribe has added some dialogue in the vernacular to flesh out what’s happening in this scene.

The living each utter one line. “Ich am after!” Cries one. “I am afraid!” The next one says, “Lo! Whet ich se?” Or, “Lo! What do I see?” While the third states, “Me þinke hit bey develes þre.” “I think that it is three devils!” The dead each respond with lines of their own, “Ich wes wel fair.” “Such schel þou be.” “For godes love bewer by me.” Or in Modern English, “I was well fair.” “Thus, shall you be.” “For the love of God, beware of me.”

Common Questions about Artistic Expression during the Black Death

Q: How does the art of the medieval world show us how tough the people of that era were?

Although the artists could have waited for their inevitable death, they tried to channel their fears about the Black Death through artistic expression in the form of new subjects in sculptures, paintings, etc.

Q: What’s an example of an artistic project that was never completed because of the Black Death?

The Great Cathedral of Siena in Italy was supposed to be much bigger and richer than it is now. Plans were made, but they were put on hold due to the spread of the Black Death.

Q: What was a very popular artistic trend in the aftermath of the first wave of the Black Death?

In the aftermath of the first wave of the Black Death, one very popular artistic trend was that of the three living meeting the three dead.

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