Michael Sweerts
Plague in an Ancient City, ca. 1652-54

Oil on canvas, 118.75 x 171.45 cm

Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of the Ahmanson Foundation

The Flemish painter Michael Sweerts (1618-64) was born in Brussels, but moved to Rome in 1646, where he remained until after 1652. Influenced strongly by Caravaggio, Pieter van Laer, and the Dutch Bamboccianti, he specialized in portraits and genre scenes. Sweerts returned to Brussels by 1656, where he joined the painters' guild in 1659. In 1660 he joined a Catholic missionary group called the Société des Missions Etrangères (the Society of Foreign Missions), and in 1661 accompanied them on a mission to Asia. He left the order in 1662 in Tabriz (Persia), and spent his final years in Persia and India. He died in the Indo-Portuguese capital of Goa in 1664.

This panoramic scene of a plague in antiquity is Sweerts's most ambitious and monumental painting. Bathed in dramatic lighting and rendered in cool colors with thin transparent glazes, it depicts the appalling devastation of the plague. The cityscape derives from Sebastiano Serlio's design for a tragic stage from Book II of the Architettura (Paris, 1545). Sweerts's tragic theme is set in a piazza filled with figures in classical poses and drapery. The dead and dying are surrounded by figures kneeling in prayer, crying out in anguish, or awestruck with horror. The motifs of the infant suckling his dead mother, in the left foreground, and the man holding his nose, in the right middleground, derive from Marcantonio Raimondi's engraving after Raphael, known as Il Morbetto (cat. 5), which was one of the most influential plague compositions in Italy. The woman on the far left rests her head on her hand, in a pose traditionally associated with melancholy.

Sweerts's classicizing painting was once attributed to Nicolas Poussin, and indeed pays homage to the French master's Plague at Ashdod, executed in Rome in 1630. Caroselli's copy of Poussin's painting is on view in the exhibition (cat. 1). Whereas the precise plague theme treated by Poussin and Caroselli is well known, Sweerts's theme has been exceedingly difficult to identify. Plague in an Ancient City was long thought to represent a pestilence that beset Athens in the fifth century B.C., but there are many discrepancies between Thucydides's account of the Athenian plague and the details of Sweerts's composition. Therefore, some scholars have suggested that Sweerts intended to depict a generic classical scene in order to comment on early modern experiences of the plague, such as the one he endured in Rome from 1648-50, or a meditation on the horrors of the disease in general.

In his essay in this catalogue, Franco Mormando proposes a new interpretation of Sweerts's image, which focuses on the contrast between pagan and Christian responses to the plague during the reign of the fourth-century Roman Emperor Julian “the Apostate.” This contrast, Mormando argues, is underscored by the two-part composition, which is cast in shadow on the left, or pagan side, and is far better lit on the right, or Christian side. Mormando discusses in detail the complex iconography of the painting, which was probably conceived as a warning to heretics and Catholics alike to adhere to the teachings of the “true” Catholic faith or suffer the consequences of God's wrath.