Painting during the Black Death

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The time of the Black Death is one of the most well-known and productive in European history. Despite the fact that thousands of people died as a result of this horrific illness, contemporary art has received paintings that have gone down in history as masterpieces. Many authors, journalists, poets, and musicians were inspired by the Black Death. As a result, they displayed their works in public. Their main subjects were death and mourning, as well as depictions of skeletons and deceased humans. However, these images and countless frescoes did not frighten people; rather, they brought them together and reminded them of the universal sorrow that all had to overcome. Due to the active development of new tendencies in the art, historians say that the period of the Black Death can be called a turning point from the Middle Ages to Renaissance, the period, characterized by subtle art, fragile forms and incredible beauty. The fact is that in those years, Europe suffered from overpopulation and, consequently, unemployment. After millions of people became victims of the plague, these problems were resolved. Europe needed masters and artists to promote art and industrial development; therefore, some scholars argue that the plague was one of the factors contributing to the onset of the Renaissance. As a result, Europe turned out to be one of the well-developed parts of the world with an exceptional art.


After the beginning of the plague and its spread across the land, Europe was living a period of rising from the "dark ages". Europeans were trying to put horrible memories behind it and started moving to more enlightened era. Villages and towns were no longer the victims of barbarians, which have provided good ground for the development of art and architecture. Without the stable fear of invasion, artists and architects found the fertile ground for the development. Medieval painters were well respected professionals. The period of the Black Death that Europe has over lived, has given an impulse for the development of art. Thesis: the Black Death is a turning point from middle Ages to Renaissance.

The Black Death and Art

Thousands of famous and prominent painters, craftsmen, amateurs and patrons of the arts were perishing during the mid XIX century. The horrors of the Black Death penetrated into each aspect of the medieval culture and art, in particular. Practically each sphere of the art was influenced by the dark period of history, called the Black death; therefore, no wonder that those effects were permanent, bringing a solemn darkness to visual art, graveness in literature, and sad and sometimes even rude sounds of music (Gottfried 6). The terrible trauma of this period of European life initiated the development of new ideas and visions in the imaginations of writers and painters and resulted in the rise of new kinds of art, which have been exciting people for decades to follow (Gottfried 7). The anxiety of every day survival created the atmosphere of darkness and doom, giving the rise to the tendency of depicting the images of Hell, Satan and the Grim Reaper instead of optimistic depictions of nature and romantic pictures. Many painters gave up art, considering that it was hopeless and uninteresting to try and create beauty in a world, full of gloom and desperateness.

Despite the changes in the medieval culture and art, many critics are sure that the Black Death was a turning point to Renaissance. In other words, it gave the rise to the development of new styles in art, literature and theater.

Historian Jean Delumeau writes that "the Black death" and the rest epidemics turned European art into cruelty, suffering, sadism, madness and obscurantism. Fear of plague is reflected in the plots of Dances of Death, Triumph of Death, The Three dead and three alive. (Gottfried 8). Another famous historian and expert on the art of the late middle ages Millard Miss wrote that the "Black death" was a cultural event in the sphere of religious painting. According to Delumeau, the image of the plague was presented in the form of arrows hitting people. Therefore, the mural of Benozzo Gozzoli in San Gimignano (1464) depicts father God, who, despite the pleas of Christ and Mary, hurls a poisoned arrow at the city (Aries 67). Diptych of Martin Shaffner (1510-1514) depicts angels who shoot sinners pleading for mercy; and Christ, at the request of the saints — protectors from the plague with a gesture protects the city and arrows do not fall into it (Aries 67). The fresco in the Roman Church of San Pietro in Vincoli depicts the skeleton of a winged demon, who throws the arrow in the residents of the city. The iconography, according to Delumeau, was characterized with the suddenness and the brevity of the disease. Dutch prints from the Museum van Much in Rotterdam depict the funeral, which fall people carrying the coffin.

Dance of death

An epidemic of plague is associated with the development of a traditional genre of medieval European iconography, called "Dance of death". This is an iconographic plot, representing the dance of skeletons with a poetic commentary. Many historians state that the emergence of the genre of "Dance of death" is related to the middle XIV century, when in 1350, a Dominican in Central Germany created the text, illustrated with the depiction of 24 characters dancing on a night cemetery (Binion 396). "Dance of death" is considered to have complex origin, emerged as a reaction to the epidemic of plague of 1348 (Binion 396). In the following centuries the relationship of "Dance of death" and plague has been also detected. The plague is also associated with lübeck "Dance of death" in 1463, when the disease struck the North of Germany. German artist Burnt Notes depicted the "Dance of death" in the Marienkirche (Gertsman 144).

The positive image of death in the medieval Renaissance

After the Black Death and its terrifying consequences, many medieval artists introduced its theme in their works and demonstrated it as something festinating and inevitable. The theme of death has become extremely popular in works of many prominent artists of those times. Their works, with which world-famous cathedrals are decorated, celebrate death as a beginning of new life and end of old one, with its sorrows. The medieval appeal with death did not appear at once, but developed gradually. People have come to realization that the Black Death was more than an epidemics, it was a message from God (Gertsman 145). Therefore, this topic has found its reflection in the art and in most cases, it was considered positive. Whatever strange it may sound, but the influence of the Black plague on the art is hard to deny, as this period was marked with the great number of wonderful works, which are still popular.

The influence of the Black Death was seen not only in painting, but in literature as well. Literature of those difficult times has eventually become the priceless masterpieces. The victims of the plague were concerned with a “good” death. Death was considered a salvation from life, full of sins. Religious literature used the Black Death as a source for inspiration and depicted this period as very important for getting salvation and purification from sins. In response to the overwhelming interest to the Black Death and its widespread development in art, a new genre of moral literature was created by pastors and theologians. This kind of art has become known as the “Art of Dying”, or “Ars moriendi” (Gertsman 146). The manuscripts were written in the vernacular and helped people to get ready for their own “good” death and make sure that their loved ones have the same. One of the most famous literature works from the Renaissance period is The Craft of Dying, containing five important sections:

“In the first the reader is reminded of the terrors of spiritual death and damnation. The second warns against typical temptations of the dying, such as impatience, unbelief, or spiritual despair. The third consists of questions regarding one’s spiritual fitness: belief in Christian doctrine; matters of conscience left unsettled; how one might live differently if he or she recovers. The fourth is a meditation on the power of Christ and the Crucifixion in allowing for salvation, and the fifth instructs bystanders on how best to help the dying person pass, with prayers, readings from Scripture, and presentation of pictures of Christ or the saints” (Byrne 72).

The pages of the books were often illustrated with depictions of deathbeds, underlying the inevitability of this process in life of a person. These small pictures depicted death, which was represented as a skeleton holding an arrow-like impale, which has been a symbol of the plague.

Popular images in art after the Black Death

The art of the periods before and after the Black Death is totally different, characterized by the development of new images and directions. The art after the Black Death was harsh and emphasized fault as well as necessity to regret. This period was characterized by the occurrence of the images demonstrating death, and devotional images of the Virgin Mary and Madonna. Their images have become greatly popular as a sympathetic intercessors and protectors of mankind against the judgment of God.

Source: Fuentes para 6

Triumph of Death, Traini. This fresco was created in the period after the plague. It depicts three corpses that stand for the social categories of people, who pray, fight/rule, and work. The major meaning of the fresco is impossibility to escape death.

Giotto, The Ognissanti Madonna, 1306.Source: Fuentes para 7

The Black Death paved the way for Renaissance

Many historians state that the Black Death, despite its terrifying consequences and effects, had positive impact of the development of art in medieval Europe. It is obvious that the Black Death fundamentally disrupted medieval society, but it is believed that the social, political and religious disturbance created by the Black Death contributed to beginning of the period of the Renaissance in Europe. With a great amount of free lands, readily obtainable to survivors, the firm hierarchical structure, which characterized pre-plague society, became more fluid. One of the brightest representatives of Medieval Europe in Renaissance, the Medici family, who was significant patrons of Italian Renaissance culture, originated from the rural area of Mugello in Tuscany. They moved to Florence soon after the end of the plague. The family was wealthy and rich. Besides, they promoted development of arts and promoted such great and famous artists as Filippo Lippi, Sandro Botticelli, and Michelangelo. These bright representatives of the medieval culture and art can be called the founding fathers of Renaissance. The possibility of such mobility to occur without the social and economic disturbance caused by the Black Death is the subject of active debates, however, all historians are unique in their opinion that this dark period in the history of Europe made significant impulse for the development of art and has become a turning point of Renaissance.


The Black Death period is regarded as one of the most important for the development of art. The notion and understanding of art has been changed and has acquired new features and themes. The Black Death is a turning point from middle Ages to Renaissance. Due to the Black Death, art and literature of the whole medieval Europe has received new themes, as many talented artists were inspired by the images of death.

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Works cited

Aries, P. Images of Man and Death. Harvard University Press. 2003.

Binion, R. “Europe’s culture of death”. Journal of Psychohistory, Vol. 31 (2004):395-412.

Byrne, Joseph P. The Black Death. Westport, Connecticut and London: Greenwood Press, 2004.

Fuentes, A. The Black Death's Effects on Art. Web 2016.

Gertsman, Elina. “The Dance of Death in Reval (Tallinn); The Preacher and His Audience.” Gesta, Vol. 42, No. 2 (2003): 143-159

Gottfried, Robert S. The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe. New York: The Free Press, 1983.

May 12, 2022

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