Plague: Lights On

Aliases: plague, Black Death

Despite its relative scarcity in the modern world (thank you, antibiotics!), the plague still evokes vivid images of terror and destruction. Its dreadful impact has left scars, and it’s clear why: where it struck it left civilization radically altered. In this post, I will focus on one facet of its legacy: its effect on art.

The most famous incarnation of the disease, the Black Death, was a bubonic plague epidemic that started in 1347, at the dawn of the Renaissance. It decimated European society, killing approximately 1/3 of Europe’s population, with some cities losing more than 60% of their inhabitants. The disease continued to emerge in epidemics across the continent for the next 300 years1. The most obvious effect on the art world was that many great painters were laid low, cutting their careers short. But the plague’s influence was also more insidious. The survivors of these epidemics were shaped by them, and there is evidence of the plague in the work they created1,2.

As you’d expect, much of the art from the era of the Black Death dealt with issues surrounding the plague, especially death and dying. In fact, a new artistic genre featuring death as a central element arose during this time, the Danse Macabre or Dance with Death. It depicted a personified death summoning people to dance to the grave, starkly illustrating the fragility of life, and the universality of death. Plague epidemics also changed the patronage system that commissioned most artwork, which, combined with an emphasis on death, led to an increase in conservative religious themes in paintings of this period2.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. While the plague certainly brought death into focus, it also demonstrated how precious life is, inspiring many artists to showcase life’s beauty in the wake of the disease. Really, the fact that art was being created at all is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. Despite arriving right when Europe was pulling itself out of the Dark Ages, the horrors of the plague didn’t snuff out what little light there was; instead, it survived and grew brighter1.


Cause: The bacteria Yersinia pestis causes the plague. Its natural hosts are rodents and other small mammals, including prairie dogs (not so cute now, huh?), rats, mice, voles, and rabbits. Although their predators may become infected from eating a sick animal (cats are particularly susceptible), the disease is normally transmitted between hosts by fleas. Humans can also contract it through contact with infected bodily fluids or tissues (such as skinning an infected animal) or, in the case of pneumonic plague, contact with infectious droplets coughed up by a sick person3.

Consequence: The three most common types of plague are bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic. All three cause fever, chills, and weakness. A person with bubonic plague will develop swollen and painful lymph node(s), called buboes, near the offending fleabite as the bacteria reproduce. Untreated, Y. pestis can spread throughout the body and result in septicemic plague, which causes abdominal pain, shock, and internal bleeding. Skin and other tissues, especially extremities, such as fingers and toes, may become necrotic (turn black and die). As mentioned above, pneumonic plague is the only type that can be directly transmitted between people, however it can also develop from untreated bubonic or septicemic plague. This type of the disease causes rapid onset pneumonia, with shortness of breath, cough, bloody or watery mucous, and can lead to respiratory failure and shock3.

Cure: The advent of antibiotics packed a punch for the plague. Although it is difficult to assess mortality rates, the best estimates indicate that mortality has dropped from a high of 66% before antibiotics to approximately 11% in modern epidemics. So while the plague remains a serious illness, it is very successfully treated by commonly available antibiotics3.


  1. Jones, J. “Brush with the Black Death: how artists painted through the plague”. The Guardian. 15 February 2012. Web. 20 August 2014.
  1. McCouat, P. Surviving the black death. Journal of Art in Society.
  1. Plague. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 28 November 2012. Web. 17 August 2014.

Image source: Danse macabre by Michael Wolgemut, Creative Commons