Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 22, 2001
Christine M. Boeckl Images of Plague and Pestilence: Iconography and Iconology Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2000. 210 pp.; 45 b/w ills. Paper $30.00 (094354985X)

Christine Boeckl’s Images of Plague and Pestilence: Iconography and Iconology is a concise overview of the visual and literary history of cultural responses to pestilential epidemics. In this study, Boeckl draws on her extensive knowledge of the scholarly literature on plague—pioneered by Jacqueline Brossollet and Henri Mollaret—and to which she has contributed several significant articles since completing her dissertation in 1990. Thus, the book draws on Boeckl’s familiarity with the symptoms of the plague, its history of outbreaks, its causes, its folklore, the devotional images created to ward it off, and the iconographic conventions established for representing those stricken by it.

As Boeckl explains in her introduction, she has confined her study of plague imagery to paintings, drawings, and prints produced from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Within these chronological parameters, Boeckl focuses especially on images created between 1500 and 1700. In spite of her concentration on the Renaissance and Baroque, she includes Classical descriptions of outbreaks of plague as well as modern and contemporary episodes of bubonic plague and the onset of AIDS. Boeckl’s treatment of plague is, therefore, comprehensive, although it should be noted that she carefully defines and distinguishes the different types of epidemics she chronicles.

Within the larger categories of pestilential diseases that Boeckl explores, her central interest is bubonic plague, which is spread by the bacillus Yersinia pestis. It was Yersinia pestis, spread by infected fleas on rats, that caused the outbreak of the Black Death in 1347, which provided the catalyst for the initiation of plague imagery in painting and the graphic arts. Plague imagery—which began by incorporating established themes such as the “Dance of the Dead,” the “Triumph of the Death,” and the “Madonna of Mercy”—eventually developed an independent pictorial tradition to which artists such as Raphael, Titian, Tintoretto, Rubens, Van Dyck, and Poussin contributed. Hence, the subject of plague has formed part of the creative oeuvre of leading artists, whose prominence and influence resulted in the formation of a canonical formula of plague subjects and motifs.

Boeckl begins her book with a medical explanation of bubonic plague, which had three pandemics: the Justinian Plague (sixth to eighth century), the Black Death (fourteenth to eighteenth century), and the current epidemic, which began in East Asia about 1860 and continues even today. The once incurable bubonic plague is now treated with antibiotics, streptomycin being the most effective drug. The European outbreaks of the plague can be traced to Asia, from which it spread to Europe across the Mediterranean. Although it has certain set symptoms, which are reproduced in European images of plague victims, Boeckl is careful to caution the reader that in written descriptions of plague, it is not possible to ascertain whether it is indeed an outbreak of true Yersinia pestis that is being described.

True bubonic plague has a consistent medical profile, which includes the appearance of swellings, called buboes, on the afflicted’s neck, groin, and underarm areas. The representation of buboes and the pain they caused is a marker that the artist is depicting an outbreak of bubonic plague. Animals are also susceptible to the disease; hence, the representation of dead animals in the proximity of the stricken is another indication that the artist is chronicling an episode of bubonic plague. Boeckl uses these markers as a base for developing her study of the history of the representation of Yersinia pestis.

To supplement the visual evidence for representations of the plague, Boeckl turned to literary sources, and again she is careful to note that not all descriptions of epidemics are of Yersinia pestis. It is nevertheless possible to assess which descriptions are most likely to describe bubonic plague because they frequently begin with noting the death of animals and the appearance of buboes on the afflicted. Among early descriptions of outbreaks are those by Homer, Livy, Ovid, and Virgil, whose descriptions of the Phrygian plague in the Aeneid inspired Raphael to design one of the most influential plague pictures.

Boeckl continues her survey of plague literature through the Middle Ages, touching on Procopius and, naturally, Boccaccio’s Decameron. It was in 1603 that Cesare Ripa included a personification of Peste in his Iconologia, which codified the representation of plague. Later, eighteenth-century writers, such as Daniel Defoe and Samuel Pepys, added to the body of literature on plague. In the modern era, Albert Camus and Edgar Allan Poe stand out as contributors to the literary subgenre of plague texts. Boeckl is especially thorough in covering the biblical, hagiographic, and liturgical mentions of plague, and also includes material drawn from sermons, prayers, and poems to demonstrate the extent that plague becomes cultural concern.

Following her discussion of literary sources, Boeckl outlines the protocols of plague representation, some of which are graphically literal while others are conceptual and symbolic. Boeckl summarizes the results of her survey of pictorial imagery and arrives at a visual vocabulary that signals her subject’s main themes and motifs. From Boeckl’s survey, we learn that a variety of objects are used symbolically to indicate the existence of plague: arrows, swords, lances, hatchets, and darts, as well as the Instruments of the Passion of Christ. The arrival of plague is represented by the figure of Death, the opening scenes of the Apocalypse, banks of clouds, and showers of meteors or stars. Certain gestures indicate plague: the raising of an arm to avoid pain caused by buboes, the turning of a head to ease neck pain caused by the swellings, or the holding of noses to escape the smell of the pus erupting from them when they burst.

Various figural motifs are discussed as standard figurative groupings that became part of the repertoire employed by artists to denote the representation of plague. Most obvious among these is the personification of Death as a skeleton or walking cadaver, but more subtle motifs were also developed. The depiction of cadavers, sick people, and dead animals—all represented in tandem with the buboe-stricken dying, who exhibit buboes—recur consistently in plague pictures. Divine intervention or deliverance often accompanies the representation of the unfortunate—hence the appearance of the Trinity, angels, the Virgin, and the plague saints: Sebastian, Gregory, Adrian, Christopher, Thecla, Anthony, Roch, King David, and Charles Borromeo. For each of these, Boeckl provides background.

Boeckl’s discussion of the artistic innovations of these motifs gains strength when she discusses the development of this iconography in the High Renaissance and Baroque. In her discussion of well-known images, such as Raphael’s Madonna di Foligno, Marcantonio Raimondi’s Morbetto, Titian’’s Gozzi Altarpiece, Tintoretto’s St. Roch Ministering to the Plague Victims, and Giorgio Vasari’s St. Roch Altar, Boeckl recontextualizes these works by directly linking their content to the tradition of plague imagery from which they drew and contributed. Thus, Boeckl effectively reinterprets these paintings by placing them within a continuum that is not usually perceived by art historians who study these works within the development of individual artists. By giving them a metasignificance, Boeckl transforms our understanding of the intentions that promoted their commission and function.

It is, however, in her discussion of Tridentine plague imagery that Boeckl makes her most significant contribution. Using the figure of the great Counter Reformation saint, Charles Borromeo, as the nexus for her analysis of the transformation of plague imagery from 1600 to 1775, Boeckl discusses the connections between plague imagery and Tridentine theology. The emphasis on confessional issues that accompanied Tridentine reforms caused a transformation in the representation of plague from a graphic depiction of the subject to a metaphysical experience that assisted in the spiritual salvation of the individual.

Plague thus became a path to Heaven, and in the illustrative images, such as Pierre Mignard’s St. Charles Administers the Viaticum to a Plague Victim, the suffering of the sick is juxtaposed with the miracle of the Eucharist. Other images, such as Lodovico Carracci’’s St. Charles Baptizes an Infant in a Plague Encampment, represent miracles that formed part of the developing lore of plague incidents, and the performance of the sacraments became linked to the deliverance from plague. Hence, either miraculous cures or beatific death, such as that depicted by Benedetto Luti in St. Charles Administers Extreme Unction to Plague Victims, became visual loci for upholding the validity of the sacraments and for distinguishing Catholic from Protestant versions of the spirituality accompanying plague representation.

Boeckl concludes with a brief discussion of nineteenth-century images of plague victims and brings her survey to a close by indicating the existence of works of art related to the AIDS crisis. In her introduction, Boeckl explains that the impetus for her study was provided by her personal experience during World War II. For her, plague is a metaphor for humanity’s ability to survive events that should erase the existence of compassionate behavior, yet do not. Images of Plague and Pestilence is Boeckl’s personal statement, written in scholarly terms, of her experience of individual and communal heroism in the face of disaster. As such, it is a book worth reading for its academic and humanistic value.

Lynette Bosch
F, Professor, Art History Program, School of the Arts, SUNY Geneseo