Art, in the history of man, has always held a mirror to society, from the caves of the Neander Valley to the salons of Paris it has reflected his feelings about his milieu. He has a burning need, it would seem, to record that which intrigues him, from the bloody fallen buffalo intended for the evening dinner to the silk-draped beauty of the Rive Gauche of the River Seine. As the Black Death swept across Europe near the end of the Dark Ages two thirds of the population died. It returned almost regularly across the face of the continent, bringing indiscriminate death. It was no respecter of rank or privilege and brought down high and low. It is difficult to envision such carnage. Look around a school or even a classroom and imagine that six out of each ten counted would be gone (Virginia.edu). It was only natural for the writers and artists of the day to feel an urge to record the story. They may have even considered that it was the end of mankind. What they thought might not be known but it is known that the Black Death had a profound effect on the arts and the patrons of art.
Before the Black Death revisited Europe the arts and music was decidedly lighter in spirit. Song, dance and art grew more somber as time passed without any sign of letup in the deaths. The exceptions to the rule of sobriety were the fatalists who decided that they might as well live it up while they had the life to do so. The arts reflected the reality perceived by those who put their lives into their art.
The effect of the plague on the population was devastating but it did more subtle damage as well. Not only were the changes felt in the economics of the land and the politics and religion as well, but also in art and architecture. There are a variety of opinions as to what changes were caused by the Black Death and what was just something that was destined to happen no matter what. There is no one single answer to the question of how the world was affected by the Black Death alone (writing.com).
Some contemporary writers have said that the nobility escaped the plague while others have said the exact opposite. King Edward III of England lost his daughters and many lords and ladies as well as high churchmen died in the first wave of the resurge of the plague. The Duke of Lancaster died in the onslaught in 1361. The children seem to have suffered disproportionately.
In parts of England, including the area of Southampton, during the 16th century every 20 years the population suffered 15 to 25 % losses to its population throughout the century. But it is not disputed that among the hardest hit in society were the peasantry, the general laborers and the artisans.
An overall malaise seemed to sweep across the land and the arts reflected the mood of the people. The subject matter of art grew grim and even what might be thought of today as macabre. It is understandable, for by the end of the 1300s Europe had seen wave after wave of pestilence sweep across the land destroying the people seemingly at random. Where once an artist would be commissioned to carve a lord or lady in full dress, in the prime of life to adorn a tomb, the custom changed and the style became more reflective of the mood the times. The carving would often be of a rotting maggot infested corpse, the skeleton exposed in places, and clothing tattered as if from the grave (Boisestate.edu). It has a certain fascination to it, as if one is watching a train wreck and cannot turn away even though the event is disquieting.
It is fascinating to look upon but equally fascinating to consider the mindset that went into the decision to make such art a permanent monument to adorn the final resting place of someone who had passed while in the bloom of life. It was not the prevailing style, by any means, but nonetheless it was not an aberration seen on only one tomb as a display of idiosyncrasy.
The morbid fascination with death carried over into the popular art of the period as well, and was seen not only in the cemetery, but also in drawings and paintings. The style was given the seemingly bizarre name of Danse Macabre, meaning the dance of death. The style is not formulaic but still predictable. Virtually every painting or print shows the living going about their daily lives, working or sometimes playing, as the skeletons of death mingle and interact with them. The scenes show with a shocking clarity the biblical adage that in the midst of life, humans are in death. These are not paintings such as the blacks of Goya’s period of isolation when he decorated the walls of his home with disquieting images of demons and spirits. The Danse Macabre depicts people at play, attending festivals, laughing and singing. Others show peasants at work in the fields or craftsmen in the their daily activities. In short, it is the depiction of normal business and play being conducted in the middle of a raging pestilence of disease and death.
Skeleton animals are shown as well as humans. The huntsman may appear to be riding on skeletal horse. The dogs in the street may be shown as skeletons. Peasant girls and tavern maids dance with the skeletons and Death, as a skeletal figure can be seen plucking an enfant from the baptismal font.
The Danse Macabre is at its most shocking when the source of the art is considered. This is not art done by and aberrant mind, driven over the edge by the specter of death all around him. These are commissioned works of art, paid for by the church and the wealthy as mute testimony of how they perceived their daily lives to be. They portray a glimpse into the mindset of a troubled people who seem to accept that even during the happiest moments of their lives they are subject to loss and despair. The artist is capturing the essence of the times. He is doing what artists have always done, what it is that is required of artists. He is holding up a mirror to society and letting the people have a good look. The artist of the period does not create in a vacuum, he is creating what is requested and what will sell. He is trying to make a living and keep bread on his table. He takes the pulse of the crowd and does what is expected. He does not set the style or even influence it as artists can do in leisure during happier periods. He is simply doing what the people want during this particularly troubling time in the history of mankind.
Domenico Ghirlandaio painted the Old Man and his Grandson circa 1490 and it hangs today in the Louvre (wikipedia.org). He worked as a goldsmith as well as a painter of frescos and tempera. Though the subject of this painting is lost to history it appears to be a portrait of a middle class man and a young boy who may be his grandchild. Ghirlandaio’s studio employed many apprentices and he made art an assembly line affair. There was a great demand for a lighter happier mood in the field of art at the period when he worked. His portrait shows none of the macabre. It is a happy scene in a right room, with an open window and a young boy approaching and touching the old man. It is a scene of domesticity that had not been in favor during the plague years. Ghirlandaio painted as a result of society’s new lease on life, brought on by a reprieve from the Black Death. Ironically, Ghirlandaio succumbed to the plague in the 44th year of his life.
The Black Death brought about a prosperous middle class and the middle class is the backbone of society, paying the taxes and financing the government. Though the elite support the arts with their money, the middle class sets the tone for what is acceptable. As the Black Death receded in the minds of the succeeding generations the Church began to amass incredible power and wealth in Europe. It could indulge its taste in art and architecture and lure the best and the brightest to Rome. Michelangelo was summoned to Rome in 1498 as a relatively unknown sculptor, young, but obviously talented, as can be seen in his David. He was commissioned to sculpt a Pieta, comprised of Mary holding the dead Christ. His work was widely acclaimed and brought him wealth and fame. It is a departure from the past in both the composition and the execution. He worked with a single massive block of stone. Here Michelangelo set the tone for what would become a golden age. This early work of the Renaissance, though depicting death, was not a work Danse Macabre. There is no hint of decay or morbidity. The period when artists painted and sculpted the deaths of Black Plague victims was past. The new work was a throwback to the classic style of ancient Greece but still a symbol of the new birth and the new beginning in art and humanism.
Raphael Sanzio completed the fresco, The School of Athens in 1511, shortly after Michelangelo had finished the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It is an allegorical scene out of antiquity, showing Plato, using the image of Leonard, it is believed, in conversation with Aristotle, surrounded by the representations of the arts and sciences (wgu.hu). He pays homage to Brante and Michelangelo, using their image in the massive work. The word Renaissance is modern and not used during the Renaissance, but Raphael clearly understood the mood of the times and was a party to the rebirth of classical antiquity as well as understanding the humanist movement beginning at the same time. This painting is a demonstration of faith that there is a bright future ahead for mankind.
boisestate.edu n.d. The Black Death: Art Retrieved 3-8-07 from:
iath.viginia.edu 1994 Plague and Public Health in Renaissance Europe Retrieved
3-8-07 from: http://www3.iath.virginia.edu/osheim/plaguein.html
wga.hu n.d. Web Gallery of Art Retrieved 3-09-07 from:
Wikipedia.org 2007 Domenico Ghirlandaio Retrieved 3-9-07 from:
Writing.com 2007 The Black Death: Curse or Blessing? Retrieved 3-9-07