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Overview

Hope and Healing: Painting in Italy in a Time of Plague, 1500-1800 is the first exhibition in North America to examine the response of visual art to the plague. Thirty museums and private collections, here and abroad, have agreed to lend their art works to this thematically based exhibition.  Exploring the ways in which Italian society responded to this recurring, unpredictable disaster illuminates a variety of aesthetic, social, and religious concerns.  Our exploration is interdisciplinary using contemporary documents, personal correspondence, medical and devotional treatises, chronicles and broadsides, poetry, sermons, chapbooks, and biblical commentary.  The exhibit reveals the everyday life and the aspirations of those afflicted by the plague, whether the response is madness, eroticism or spirituality.  In the theocratic society of Early Modern Italy, the cause and the cure for the plague was often thought to come from God.  Spiritual remedies included fasting, penitential processions, charity, and heavenly intercessors.  These intercessors including the Virgin, St. Michael, St. Sebastian, St. Roch, S.Carlo Borromeo and others, pled humanity’s case for mercy in the face of an angry God.  As seen in this exhibition, devotional images of these holy protectors flourished and gave hope to those in the midst of the plague.  Previous scholarship on the plague has been largely epidemiological or sociological in nature, focusing on health measures and political consequences. This exhibition strives to correct the balance by placing the focus on visual art as one of the “rimedi spirituali.” Spiritual remedies were proclaimed and mandated by the Church.  They included special prayers to intercessors, confession, public penitential processions, fasting, charity, and meditation on death and vanity.   Many of these acts are portrayed in the paintings of this exhibition, for the role of art was to remind viewers of these remedies.

There are a number of visual clues in the paintings that alert the viewer to the plague.  One or more figures in a painting are often represented holding their noses to protect themselves from the horrible stench emanating from the dead and dying. Plague scenes depict prostrate, dazed, languishing and delirious figures.  Arrows, swords and lances (symbols of divine wrath being vented through Plague) dark clouds and astronomical signs are iconographic references to the plague.  Finally, the images of various plague saints acting as intercessors and protectors against the contagion proliferated during this period.

The invisible enemy of the plague generated fear, horror and anxiety.  However, thanks in part to the power of images, hope and courage persisted.  As Emil Male reminds us “from these catastrophes that terrified mankind, there remains today a bit of beauty.”  The opportunity to examine responses to this medical and economic catastrophe in the past is of great relevance to our own time. Not only are we living in the aftermath of 9/11, we are currently bombarded with the dangers of bioterrorism, the spread of SARS, Ebola and West Nile.  The fear of contagion by disease and even by  “evil” itself is an unfortunate by-product of disaster.  The resulting “quarantine” can also be a form of prison or censorship, as security takes precedence over freedom.  In a time far more secular than the Early Modern era of this exhibition, we are less likely to see disaster or disease as messages from God. However, science and technology have not freed us from their grip.  This exhibition will engage the viewer in these issues and provoke discussion about the role of today’s art in providing a remedy against modern “plagues.” How will art continue to inspire and give perspective to the human condition in times of disaster?

The curators, Professor Gauvin Bailey (Art History, Clark University), Professor Pamela Jones (Art History, University of Massachusetts), Professor Franco Mormando (Italian Studies, Boston College and Professor Thomas Worcester (History, Holy Cross), were also responsible for the 1999 Boston College exhibition, Saints and Sinners: Caravaggio and the Baroque Image. The curators are also authors of the catalogue with additional essays by Sheila Barker, James Clifton (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston), and Andrew Hopkins (Research professor at the University of l’Aquila).

The information in this website was taken from the exhibition catalogue, Hope and Healing: Painting in Italy in a Time of Plague, 1500-1800.

How did the plague manifest itself?

Causes of the plague

Biblical References 

Plague Saints


How Did the Plague Manifest Itself?  

A plague in the year 430 in Athens is described by Thucydides: “People in perfect health suddenly began to have burning feelings in the head, their eyes became red and inflamed, inside their mouths there was burning from the throat and tongue.  This was followed by hoarseness and vomiting, the skin constantly burned so that people could not bear the lightest linen clothing, but wanted to be completely naked.  Other symptoms included an unquenchable thirst and a total loss of memory.  Birds of prey did not come near the corpses of plague victims.  Death came often within two days.”  A notable feature of the bubonic plague is the appearance of buboes—swollen, painful, pus-filled lymph glands in the armpits, neck and groin.  The lack of diagnosis led to a virulent spread of the disease.  Even then there was an apprehension of the economic consequences that would result from an official acknowledgement of the plague.  The economies of entire towns and regions could come to a crashing halt in the face of this disease resulting in a breakdown of order; the holy became sinful and the generous became greedy.

Causes of the Plague

The true biological nature of the plague and how it was transmitted remained a mystery until 1884, when a young Swiss medical student, Alexandre Yersin, identified the pathogen responsible for bubonic plague, a bacillus he named Pasteurella pestis.  Very soon after it was found that the disease spread through the bite of fleas leaving the corpses of their dead rodent hosts.  Rats were abundant in early modern Italy and can be seen in Caroselli’s painting, Plague at Ashdod After Poussin, but no connection was drawn between rats and the plague.  In the absence of a “germ theory,” early modern Italians clung to explanations from antiquity like the miasma theory, which stated that corrupt air from underground gasses, and decaying matter causes disease.  Astrological factors also played a role.  The population sincerely believed in the direct influence of the stars and planets on human health and destiny.  The “evil conjunction” of planets could generate a miasma, and both comets and falling stars presaged disaster, especially epidemics.  With a lack of a direct cause and effect linkage, both lay people and scientists acknowledged that the real cause of the plague was to be found not on the physical plane but on the spiritual plane. The plague was God’s response to the wickedness of humanity.

Biblical References

Two important biblical references to the plague shed light on imagery in the exhibition and reinforce contemporary beliefs in a spiritual cause for the plague.  One is the story of King David’s attempt to take a census.  God was infuriated by this act of arrogance and sends the prophet Gad to announce David’s punishment: “a choice of war, famine, or plague”. David chooses the plague and 70,000 of his people die.  Another important plague narrative from the Bible is the plague at Ashdod.  The Philistines conquered the Israelites and brought the Ark of the Covenant to their temple of Dagon at Ashdod.  God destroys the idol and sends a terrible plague to the people.

Plague Saints

Universally acknowledged plague saints include St. Michael, St. Sebastian and St. Roch.  St. Michael’s association with the plague is specifically tied to a penitential procession led by Pope Gregory the Great 590.  When the procession reached the area of Hadrian’s Tomb, St. Michael suddenly appeared at the top of the monument in the act of sheathing his sword, signifying the end of God’s wrath.  At that moment the plague was conquered. The monument was subsequently renamed Castel Sant’ Angelo.

According to the earliest legend of his life, St. Sebastian was an elite guard under Diocletian.  When his belief in Christianity was exposed, he was sentenced to death by imperial archers. However, he did not die during this iconic moment, but was rescued by fellow Christians and nursed back to life by a Roman matron Irene and her maidservant. He was later beaten to death and thrown into a sewer.  It is unclear why the popular Saint Sebastian was invoked so often to end the plague, but there are several possibilities.  His miraculous recovery and return to a perfectly healed body after facing the archers is one reason.  In addition arrows are identified as the visual embodiment of God’s pronouncements of the plague.  Finally, a legend states that a certain basilica was built in his honor in Rome and a raging plague ended.

St. Roch is said to have been born in Montpelier, France with a red cross on his chest.  After his parents died, he traveled as a pilgrim to Rome, curing plague victims along the way by invoking Jesus and making the sign of the cross on the forehead of victims.  After St. Roch left Rome, he spent a long time curing the sick in a Piacenza hospital, eventually succumbing to the disease. Roch withdrew to a wooded place and was kept alive by a nearby dog, who brought bread to him daily.  St. Roch is often portrayed with a pilgrim’s staff and pointing to a plague bubo on his thigh (the groin was too explicit).  In most cases, he is accompanied by his faithful dog.

Another important plague saint is Saint Carlo Borromeo of Milan. As Archbishop of Milan, San Carlo began a reform movement emphasizing the Act of Penance.   He worked tirelessly in the lazzaretti of Milan, hospitals for victims of the plague.  He established penitential processions to cure the plague, inspired by the earlier procession of St. Gregory.  Carlo led the Procession of the Holy Nail, constantly gazing at a crucifix embedded with the Holy Nail, a treasured relic of Christ’s crucifixion, as over one thousand flagellants walked behind him.