The Black Death in Renaissance Artwork
The economic and social prosperity of the Italian Renaissance was interrupted when the Black Death spread across Europe from central Asia. Along with the terror and chaos the plague brought to Italian societies, there came a shift in social norms and ideas. These changes in how individuals perceived the world is shown in artwork produced after the plague struck. The peak years of the Black Death drastically shifted depictions of life and death in Renaissance art produced in major cities. Artwork from the fifteenth century alludes to a more pessimistic view of cities like Florence, the afterlife, and the church than that of the previous years. Comparing artwork from these different societal conditions showed how a devastating disease caused religious and cultural ideas to differ from the republican pride seen in city-states of the time. Taking into account the scholarly discussion, the church’s role in the production of artwork raises questions about the extent to which religious actions enabled the production of these new themes in art.
During the years 1348 to 1351, the plague came to the Mediterranean on a merchant ship from Constantinople to Sicily and to the mainland of the Italian Peninsula. The disease spread quickly and caused death within weeks, days, or in some cases hours of exposure. The plague took three forms distinguished by modern medicine. The bubonic plague was the most common and had sixty percent death rate. The pneumonic form had a ninety percent death rate, and the less common septicaemic usually caused mortality within an hour. Each had different characteristics including buboes around the lymph nodes, respiratory failure, and contagious rashes. It is unclear how all the different types of plague spread, but the most common forms traveled on the fleas of rats. Fleas that carried this bacteria were introduced to new areas through trade ships and, once on land, the disease spread through saliva. During this time, Italy was experiencing a rapid growth in city populations, with trade routes expanding both in port cities and further inland. Places such as Venice, Genoa, and Florence had flourishing economies with wealthy families to sustain urban growth. These cities became artistic, political, and intellectual centers of the Renaissance. Unsanitary and crowded conditions in cities allowed for even faster spread of the bacteria when it reached large populations. When the disease struck Florence, four percent of the population died almost immediately and over the course of three years, Europe lost one third of its entire population. During this time of chaos, some people turned to the church and increased piety, some fled to the countryside, and others lived with no regard to morals or responsibilities. The artistic and cultural centers that had extremely high numbers of casualties initiated the display of changing societal views in artwork.
Before the Black Death, most early Renaissance art followed certain stylistic patterns heavily influenced by religion. Paintings and frescos often displayed optimistic views of the afterlife and pride for city-states, nobility, and society. In Richard Turner’s book Renaissance Florence: The Invention of a New Art, he characterizes the Renaissance as a “Rebirth of excellent performance, excellent product, a better way of living,” and continues this sentiment through a discussion of art. 1 He describes paintings and frescos included in his book as contributing to the beauty and prosperity of the city. This way of viewing the time period is reflected in artwork from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The 1200s brought Italo Byzantine style artwork because the Byzantine Empire was connected to Italy through trade. This early Renaissance style has recurring themes and images as well as a lack of perspective and depth. An example of a common depiction in this time period is the Madonna and Child, which was displayed in some form in most European churches. One of these thematic paintings is housed in the Madonna tabernacle in Florence. The original was destroyed in a fire and was painted again by Bernardo Daddi in the mid 1300s. This painting is of Madonna holding Jesus on a throne surrounded by eight angels. 2 The style is very characteristic of Byzantine influenced paintings, including one-dimensional objects lacking depth. Both the faces of the Madonna and the angels are not depicted realistically with perspective and have rigid body positions and expressionless faces. All paintings produced in the early years of the Renaissance had these traits, and while some seemed to grasp aspects of depth and perspective, there was yet to be an artist that brought these stylistic approaches into common practice. This painting also demonstrates strong religious beliefs and practices that were also commonly depicted. The fact that this painting was destroyed and then re-created shows its religious significance to the church and those who viewed and worshipped her. Turner states this “was the effect of her miracles that pilgrims flocked from every corner of Tuscany to worship her, and to leave money in vast quantities for charitable works.” 3 Although the themes and styles in most paintings during this time were rather monotonous, their main purpose of religious significance and worship within the church was fulfilled. As shown in this painting, people felt close to heaven and the angels. Madonna, wearing embroidered clothes and sitting in an elaborate throne was shown as holy and above others. Yet, the painting allows her to feel close and personal to viewers. Europeans going to mass were able to walk directly up to the Madonna and Child to worship the painting. This accessibility, along with the common theme, emphasized the sanctity of religion in early Renaissance culture. Closeness to religious figures and reverence for religion in paintings continued throughout the years before the Black Death.
Painted on a fresco in 1306, Another example of artwork predating the plague is Giotto’s Last Judgement. 4 Giotto was seen as the first great Renaissance painter because he began shifting from Byzantine influence and utilized realistic style, perspective, and depth to a degree that had not been done before. He began creating scenes based on both biblical concepts and secular, realistic themes and images. This fresco differs from Madonna paintings because the elements involved are extremely detailed and show multiple different layers of scenes and people. Giotto depicts three sections; heaven, hell, and purgatory, with Jesus in the middle. This restates strong religious ideas about being close to God because Jesus is emphasized with color and size. Heaven is much larger than the other two sections, and is filled with colorful angels and apostles. The fact that heaven and Jesus are enunciated in this work shows the optimistic views of the afterlife before the plague. Since heaven is large, it seems that most people awaiting judgement were able to get in. Purgatory, hell, and the devil are much smaller in comparison, and even depictions of torture in hell are subdued and less noticeable than the extravagance of Jesus. Another noticeable point is that the people waiting in purgatory are in a calm, organized line, with no signs of anxiety about what the afterlife holds. Giotto used new and innovative techniques of detail and depth to carry positive religious views throughout the early Renaissance.
With the devastation of the Black Death came changes in these types of paintings. In Christine M. Boeckl’s book Images of Plague and Pestilence: Iconography and Iconology, she states Benedict XII’s claim that “the blessed would be allowed to enjoy the presence of God immediately after their demise, yet their bliss would increase to a more complete experience after the Last Judgement.” 5 This idea is seen in previous paintings, but Boeckl continues states that this is not the case for paintings created around 1347-1500. Instead of the concept of individual judgement with an optimistic view of getting to heaven, later paintings depict a mass judgement scenario with more fear and chaos. She goes on to say that “an investigation into the art produced during the countless epidemics is well suited to explore the period’s transcendental views on sickness and death.” 6 Looking at these darker themes in paintings directly reflects people’s opinions on life, death, and religion during the trials of the plague. One example of a famous painting that embodies this is Francesco Traini’s Triumph of Death, a fresco displayed on the wall at Camposanto Pisa in 1349. 7 Traini was known for creating strong biblical themes while including darker elements of suffering in his artwork. His style is characteristic of the art produced during this time period. Triumph of Death is larger than the others at the Camposanto and depicts a chaotic scene in the city streets. A line of three open coffins show the stages of death and circling the coffins are nobility on horseback. This imagery reinforces the idea that the Black Plague could reach everyone, even the wealthy. Nobles and wealthy families were seen as set apart from impoverished and diseased populations, but during the plague this sentiment was no longer true. Above this scene, angels and demons are waging a war over the city. This restates the idea that the afterlife was no longer certain. People believed that the plague was a form of God’s wrath coming down on the sinful cities. Therefore, everyone was subject to harsh judgement in the event of death. Traini’s painting also reveals changing ideas about the cities themselves. Because of the plague, Europeans thought that the sins of entire cities would cause mass judgement and damnation. Previously, citizens and their government took great pride in the growth and prosperity of city-states, but the plague brought doubts about their true morality and success. This painting demonstrates the fear of death and the degradation of urban areas instilled in everyone during the plague.
One piece that exemplifies changing ideas about cities is Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good Government created in the mid-1300s and housed in the Salla dei Nove. 8 He was characterized as being original and innovative in his style, which is shown by his more secular approach to this work. This series of three fresco panels depict a scene of the city streets in Siena. The buildings are tall and crowded, with higher levels built further outwards to avoid dripping of waste down the buildings. Lorenzetti also includes animals freely roaming around, and people crowding the streets. This painting, though it does not directly refer to death or the plague, depicts how the Black Death caused drastic changes in city life. Lorenzetti highlighted the unsanitary, crowded conditions brought by growing population size. These conditions led to the rapid spread of bacteria that caused massive mortality rates in cities like Siena. Lorenzetti’s display of a Renaissance city scene alludes to the fact that people no longer saw cities as pristine and perfectly within the will of God. Instead, death and plague brought suffering and the degradation of city lifestyle.
Another example by Traini is his fresco Last Judgement, also located at the Camposanto. 9 Although this depiction is much different from Giotto’s Last Judgement, the fresco has the same layered structure. Heaven is painted much smaller and with fewer angels. Purgatory is larger and crowded, taking up almost half of the entire painting. People are shown in a frantic crowd with armed angels fighting them off and protecting themselves from the terrified people. This image shows anxieties that came from so many people dying without proper burials, which lead to not getting into heaven. This also restates the idea of the wrath of God being unleashed over the masses. Purgatory is over crowded because such large numbers were dying and the afterlife was uncertain. People believed that religion and piety would no longer ensure a spot in heaven, and God’s judgment could come down on all citizens. Because it is less peaceful and again shows the mob-like nature of Traini’s purgatory, the depiction of the armed angels is also much different from previous paintings. Hell is in a different painting because it is bigger than heaven and purgatory, and is more crowded than Giotto’s depiction. The devil is beast-like in the middle of the fresco, and is painted bigger than Jesus. This emphasizes again the pessimistic views of the afterlife because of the massive numbers of sinful people that entered purgatory. Traini painted hell in levels, as written by Dante in Divine Comedy. This addition seems to make room for a variety of sinners on different levels, showing how many people were sentenced to hell. This work shows completely different perspectives on life and death than that of earlier years, all because of the plague’s impact on society.
In the book Artistic Centers of the Italian Renaissance: Florence, Francis Ames-Lewis points out that although mortality rates were high, there were still many great painters that lived through multiple waves of the plague to continue these iconic depictions in art. Because these artists were living through the terrors of the Black Death, there are plenty of paintings produced within a few decades that show these themes. 10 An example Ames-Lewis gives is The Plague as Arrows and Corruption, painted anonymously as part of the chronicle of Giovanni Sercambi (1348-1424). 11 This painting includes a frenzy of shadowy demons flying at the top and shooting arrows down, killing people walking below. This imagery is a symbol of corruption penetrating Renaissance society and leading to the death of sinful cities and citizens. The work is fairly simple, with little color or background detail, which adds to the dark theme of inescapable death and destruction. The artist emphasizes the sentiment that society was evil and the Black Plague came as a punishment for people straying from God. Europeans from different social statuses and economic standings lie dead at the bottom of the painting, which shows how death devastated everyone during this time, and there was no relief in sight.
These recurring themes of city life, death, and religion are seen in both the early and later years of the Renaissance. However, their depiction changed drastically and correlated with how society reacted to the Black Death. Another aspect to this topic is the church and the changing culture surrounding the Black Death’s role in the production of artwork. Some people during the plague reacted by increasing their pious activity in an attempt to save themselves from God’s wrath in the event of judgement. This included praying and attending mass more often, but more importantly giving donations and gifts to the church whenever possible. Some art historians argue that this increased donation to the church and the overall economic condition caused by the Black Death allowed the Renaissance to continue progress a certain way. This would also possibly result in more famous artwork than there would have been without the plague. An example of this is in Judith C. Brown’s article “Prosperity or Hard Times in Renaissance Italy?” in which she analyzes this argument and the scholarly discussion about it. She states “According to the depression thesis, in the one and a half centuries after the Black Death, almost everywhere economic activity contracted more sharply than population,” and this degradation effected culture. 12 Because of this, some historians argue, “The elite now spent time and money in the leisure of country estates and in art. As a cultural phenomenon, the Renaissance was inextricably tied to depression.” 13 This angle infers that because of economic downfall in cities and repercussions in culture such as increased piety and movement to the countryside, more art was produced. Recently, this argument has become less popular among scholars. Brown discusses the works of other scholars against this thesis such as Maureen Mazzaoui. Mazzzaoui states that the decline of city industries such as textiles “cannot be attributed to stagnant markets” caused by the Black Death. In addition, industry in urban areas may not have declined as much as some scholars believe, so she says there was most likely not a mass movement of elite artists to the countryside. 14 However, the extent to which donations to the church affected what kinds of paintings were created and where they were displayed is still up for debate. More monetary gifts given to the church potentially gave the institution a bigger role in deciding what artistic themes to display in churches for all of Europe to see.
As shown through examples from these famous artists throughout the early and middle years of the Renaissance, the Black Death changed the course of artwork produced during this time. These shifting approaches to artistic themes and styles over the course of the early and middle years of the Renaissance are apparent in the artwork produced. Art before the Black Death, dating back to the Italo-Byzantine era, depicted strong religious themes that reflected culture. After the plague, artists painted more pessimistic scenes with allusions to the fear and death instilled in society. The church and economy’s role in their creation and affect on society are still an active part of the scholarly discussion about the Renaissance. Understanding why artists painted a certain way gives historians a glimpse at the changes in Italian society and culture, especially in city life after the plague.
Ames-Lewis, Francis. Artistic Centers of the Italian Renaissance: Florence. New York:
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Anonymous, The Plague as Arrows and Corruption, Chronicle of Giovanni Sercambi (Source:
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Boeckl, Christine M. Images of Plague and Pestilence. Missouri: Truman State University Press,
Brown, Judith C. “Prosperity or Hard Times in Renaissance Italy?” Renaissance Quarterly 42,
Cohn, S. K., “Piety and Religious Practices in the Rural Dependencies of Renaissance Florence.”
The English Historical Review vol. 114. Nov. 1999.
Giotto. Last Judgement, 1306. Fresco. Pauda: Arena (Scrovegni) chapel. Accessed April 19,
Lorenzetti, Ambrogio. Allegory of Good Government, 1300s. Fresco. Siena: Salla dei Nove.
Accessed April 16, 2017.
Orcagna, Andrea., Madonna tabernacle, 1352-59. Marble and colored glass. (Orsanmichele,
Florence). In Renaissance Florence: The Invention of a New Art, by A. Richard Turner
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Traini, Francesco. Triumph of Death, 1335-40. Fresco. Pisa: Camposanto. Accessed April 20,
Traini, Francesco. Last Judgement, 1335-40. Fresco. Pisa: Camposanto. Accessed April 20, 2017 http://www.artcyclopedia.com/artists/traini_francesco.html
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