Although the horrifying black death occurred for a handful of years, the impact that it left on the European people and culture would last for decades after. The aim of this paper is to explore the religious and spiritual impact of that era, particularly how it was contrasted and portrayed in art. The Black Death embarked the creation of a gloomy, hopeless – yet very religious and spiritual – era. This essay will examine the Triumph of the Black Death as the artifact to this hypothesis, and how epidemic affected the people, art and religion during that period.
Keywords: Black death, art, painters, artists, the plague, Triumph of the black death
In the Middle Ages, the Black Death emerged during the late years of 1348 until around 1350, and it was referred to as magna mortalitas , in reflection to the high magnitude of the death rate caused by the epidemic (James, 2014). In the Autumn of the year 1347, sailors who were returning from the black sea, brought the pestilence in their blood and breath. At first glance, the people were unaware and unable to comprehend the extent of horror that this disease barred, which would later to be known as “The Black Death”. It grew to terrorize and threaten every aspect of the medieval life, and soon enough it significantly impacted societies, feudalistic systems, families and most importantly it strongly influenced the presence and importance of religion (William,2014).
The Black Death had quite a hefty toll on Europe, as it had reportedly claimed the lives of one-third of the entire European population, to the extent that some villages, such as Quob in Hampshire, were entirely wiped out (James, 2014). The disease afflicted everyone, regardless of gender, class, age or occupation. The crisis was at every part of medieval society strained to breaking point, medicine fail to pure the sick, and morality collapsed, as men turned on each in ruthless acts of cruelty. As a result, both artisan and artistic skills were noticeably affected, varying from cathedral building in Italy to craftsmanship in England (James, 2014). Many of Italy’s most famous artists, including Sienese painters Ambrogio and Pietro Lorenzetti, had fallen victim to the Black Death, and paved way to a new style of painting and the beginning of a period of “art-historical discourse” (David, 2001). A much more religious, yet darker and grimmer approach to art was established, replacing the sensitive artistic techniques for shape and light, which reflected the medieval response to the horrors and trauma of the plague (Meiss, 1978). Post-plague paintings commonly demonstrated, for instance: Satan, hell and the grim reaper. Nonetheless, what is most interesting to observe is the spiritual and religious shift of the medieval people as a response to the plague, which is most reflected in post-plague artworks.
Therefore, this essay will examine the axiomatic relation between the society and art, and it will explore and analyze how the Black Death affected the social milieu, and thus art, during the mid-fourteenth century. In an attempt to exhibit said effect and correlation, this paper will portray and focus on post-plague artistic works by Italian artists and the frescoes of Pisa Monumental Cemetery with the Triumph of death.
The Post-Plague Art Discourse
While the spread of the epidemic in Italy was by all means tragic, nonetheless, the Black Death is considered a momentous occurrence that revolutionized the history of art. The Black Death took the lives of many of Italy’s well-established painters, however, it ‘gave to the surviving masters, especially the younger ones, a sudden exceptional independence and a special freedom for the development of new styles’ (Meiss, 1978). Such new styles, however, no longer displayed the graceful figures, tranquil pastel tones or the balanced lights and spaces that were previously observed in earlier 14th century artwork. Au contraire , the new styles showed more wooden Byzantine -like figures, often portraying death, events of misfortune, horror – and at sometimes hope (Medrano-Cabral, n.d.).
The Renaissance was getting started, and also the plague too, was the beginning of the reign of death. The Black death kept coming back for almost 200 years and longer, it became regular part of life and death in the European counties.
The second pandemic of the plague was during the mid- 14th century, it not only affected the European culture, rather it also significantly influenced the notion of death, religion, as well as the mindset of the people back then. During that period, many artists captured moments and flashes of terrible misfortunes, often displaying sarcasm and other times portraying hope. Agnolo di Tura of Siena verified that “so many died that all believed it was the end of the world.” In fact, if the lower approximation that one third of the population died, so that means that about 20 million Europeans died. However, the effect of the Black Death leaves no doubt that it affected the art of the era.
From the late 14th to almost the late 16th century, art was unpredictable, in the sense that it transformed from the ethic expansions, military interventions, and even changes in religious principles and arrogances (Johnson, 2003). After the adaptation of Constantine, virtually all of Europe region was opened to the Christianity and this was the profound by the effect and result of the art and paintings that lasted for more than a thousand years. In the medieval artist attempted and struggled for realism. Churches and monasteries were covered in engravings, symbols, paintings, and sculptures that represented the bible scenes and saints. In many of these early paintings and statuaries death was represented as a way between the life on earth and the illumination. Even after the black death, death was feared and some of the time people thought and considered it as a punishment from God for all their sins.
The Triumph of Death
The Triumph of Death is a famous painting from the black death period, which portrayed how the living were facing death. The Triumph of Death was painted in 1562 by Pieter Bruegel, who was named the Elder (Dr.Frank Snowden, 2010 ). Other oil paintings like may have been influenced later by the outbreak of the Black Death. Art Historians have debated on Bruegel’s paintings for some time. In general, artists drew to visualize a moral statement about the spread of the disease as skeletons, grave diggers, caring the dead and praying for hope. this had been shown through several aspects of the painting. As the black Death first hit Europe in the 1340s, it had spread from through Asia quite slowly not as rapid as it effected Europe. The Triumph of Death displays many hints towards the portrayal of how people survived, endured and livid during the horrific period of the Black Death.
Most usual paintings that encompass such a wide space are often have a virtuous and constructive landscapes. These paintings mostly show the beauty of nature of the area. Some of the time painters depict the glorious of the victory in battles by showing the region that is controlled as a symbolic landscape of the victory, but here in the painting of the Triumph of the death is dominated by death and people fighting against it. Bruegel give the idea of skeletons doing the work of humans, which this is represented as a metaphor. Some of these skeletons are not shown as dead but skeletons are doing the work of those people who is linked directly to the black death. For instance, in painting of the triumph of the death there is a skeleton driving a cart is carrying skulls. This illustrates that the grave digger is taking the dead to burial.
The genre of art the is emerged around the black death is called ‘Danse Macabre’. This is translated from French as the dance of death. In this presentation of art, the skeletons are often seen as dancing or as performing a routine task. This genre of art had some alternatives and understanding for the way it seen by artists and it is possible that Brnener was influenced by this art piece. Also, the idea of the painting was apparent in English artwork and in literature.
Painters and the Black Death
In Siena, as in many other areas and regions, the black death has immediate and devastating effects the way how artists thought and that not only effected their thoughts but that was shown in their work in this time of age. The most obvious, of course, that was many painters, prominent and others died. The most common victims included Sienese masters such as Ambrogio Lorenzetti and his brother Pietro, the Sienese influences the Florentine master Bernardo Daddi, and also Lippo Memmi. These came on top of some more earlies notable losses by the black death – Simone Martini died in 1344, Donato Martini died in 1347 and last but not least Niccolo di Segna probably died in 1345. It is surely certain that the black death has also brutally depleted and worn-out numbers of future of potential and talented new painters where approaching to the field.
As a result, to the outbreak, the artistic virtually no longer were able to paint or design. So, for instance, the major expansion and developing of the projects, such as the Duomo, which is the Cathedral of Siena, were paused and radically scaled back. Traditional levels of support also declined. Especially after 1355 when almost many of the wealthy and powerful families started to lose their influence and impact – greatly due to the deaths of many valuable individuals. However, all those loss and failure forced politicians, as well as artists, who managed to survive the plague, to take the decision to travel and to work further away from their homes (Philip McCourt, 2014).
In conclusion, in the Middle Ages, the Black Death brought on a horrific period, filled with death, fear and desperation. However, it was particularly in this disparity that spirituality, hope and a stronger notion of existence was created. This was to a large scale reflected in the artwork during that period and even for the years to follow it. Thus a post-plague art-historical discourse was created, where paintings portrayed starker, less cheerful, bright, and overall grimmer art pieces. A great example for this, as previously exhibited in the paper, is the Triumph of Death artifact.
The Triumph of Death was almost the first landscape painting to represent death and people fighting against the black death because usually paintings presented victory in battles. Ergo, establishing and portraying the grim approach to artwork that would go on to mark this era as a consequence to the Black death era, and it was particularly called ‘dance of the death’. Sienna, amongst many, was one of the regions where black death had immediate effects on the way how artists presented their work in this period. New painters that replaced the already established ones, who were taken away by the plague, were given the opportunity to establish themselves as respected arts, and with them, a new, yet grimmer, type of art was created.
All in all, the paper concludes that the Black Death, despite the horror, the fear and the death that it brought, it is important to also note the influence and change it also brought along. People became more spiritual; the purpose and value of existence was once again seeded in the people. All of those factors created a new kind of beautiful art. Moreover, it is also important to note that this dark era, paved way to new beginning, positive change – in both art, politics and social life – and is considered a greatly significant moment of change in human history.