Apocalypse Art

Art of the Plague: Images of the Black Death

When scientists announced today they have reconstructed the genome of the Black Death, one of the most notorious killers in history, it brought to mind images from the time of that plague.   The medieval bacteria that wiped out half the population of Europe prompted hundreds of  artists to chronicle the horror.

The disease was called Black Death because the skin would blacken in the late stages, due to subepidermal hemorrhages, and the extremities would darken with gangrene.

The image above, by Krystian Kozerawski, is an abstract, fashioned with today’s technology. But art from the time of the Black Death is a chilling reminder of what it was like to live through.

Illustration of the Black Death from the Toggenburg Bible (1411)

Left – The protective clothing worn by a 17th-century plague physician. Etching by Paulus Furst of Nuremberg, Germany, 1656. Illustration from Bettmann/Corbis.  For image on right – Click through to the original website.

And from contemporary times, this photo shows  graves found in Venice on the island of Lazzaretto Vecchi filled with several centuries worth of plague victims.  The island is believed to be the world’s first lazaret–a quarantine colony to help prevent the spread of infectious diseases.


From an article in National Geographic:

Researchers found the mass graves arranged in several layers. The oldest ones, dating back to the end of the 15th century, are long rectangular trenches. The skeletons inside are carefully lined and wrapped in sheets.

Later graves are nothing more than large holes where monatti, or corpse carriers, hastily unloaded their carts.   Plague outbreaks in the 16th century were far deadlier than the earlier ones. About 500 people a day used to die in Lazzaretto Vecchio.  There was no time to take care of the burials.

2 replies »

  1. great stuff. I lived in a small village in Belgium. There is a wall path that runs down the back of the houses of the old town. Its where those who had the plague had to use to get passed the town. They were not allowed through the normal streets.


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