Landmark Collaborative Exhibition Examines Art's Response to the Bubonic Plague

(WORCESTER, Mass., February 15, 2005) - The Worcester Art Museum, in partnership with Clark University and the College of the Holy Cross, presents the first major exhibition outside of Europe to explore art's role during the plague.

Hope and Healing: Painting in Italy in a Time of Plague, 1500-1800, on view at the Worcester Art Museum from April 3 to Sept. 25, comprises 37 works by Baroque masters who worked in Italy in the midst of plague. Thirty museums and private collectors, here and abroad, have lent works to this landmark exhibition. The greatest artists of the time, including Tintoretto, Canaletto, Mignard, Sweerts and Van Dyck, are represented.

“The greatest expressions of mankind encapsulate so much of the period they represent,” said Worcester Art Museum Director James A. Welu. “When we study these paintings, we learn not only about the challenges of previous centuries, but also about ourselves, our humanity.”

For centuries, the bubonic plague struck Europe with unpredictable and disastrous frequency. With busy international ports, Italy, in particular, suffered wave after wave of plague outbreaks from the mid-14th to the early-18th century. The theocratic society of early modern Italy believed plague was both caused and cured by God, and the church mandated penitential measures, such as fasting, processions, charity and prayer to heavenly intercessors, to end the scourge.

Art of the time served to remind viewers of spiritual remedies for the plague. Devotional paintings provided a focus for personal reflection and prayer. Painted allegories of charitable works offered a model for action. Banners and large-scale altarpieces functioned to plead for God's mercy or to thank God for releasing them from plague.

“In some of the paintings, we see not so much hope of physical recovery, but search for spiritual solace,” said Thomas Worcester, an associate professor of history at the College of the Holy Cross and one of the exhibition scholars. “We see hope for resurrection after death and for peace in one's soul. ‘Healing’ was not only physical, but also mental and spiritual. Images made all healing visible and accessible.”

Subjects of the paintings range from grim portrayals of corpses wrapped in shrouds to inspiring images of charity. Sweeping views of Venice are contrasted with intimate scenes of caring for the sick. Even those at a fashionable dinner party are touched by the plague.

Angelo Caroselli's Plague at Ashdod, a key work in the exhibition, is a copy after Poussin's painting of the same theme, but it is more than a mere copy. Caroselli's painting was commissioned in 1630 by the Sicilian art collector Fabrizio Valguarnera while Poussin's version, also commissioned by Valguarnera, was still underway. This painting is considered one of Caroselli's finest works, and it is one of the most distinguished reminders of the plague of 1630 in Rome. The work is on loan from the National Gallery, London.

From the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo's Saint Thecla Praying for the Plague-Stricken also commemorates the plague of 1630, one of the most virulent outbreaks in early modern Italy. In Tiepolo's modello, Saint Thecla intercedes on behalf of the town of Este, depicted in the background. The artist's fluid handling of color and paint results in a work of unusual spiritual depth.

The exhibition also features Bernardo Strozzi's full-length modello for an altarpiece in Venice, from 1631-1636, depicting St. Sebastian. Divided in two fragments centuries ago, the painting was recently reunited at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The painting both glorifies the martyrdom of St. Sebastian and promotes charity through the good work of St. Irene and her maid, who tend to his wounds.

Hope and Healing: Painting in Italy in a Time of Plague, 1500-1800 is curated by the same multidisciplinary team of scholars responsible for the well-received exhibition Saints and Sinners: Caravaggio and the Baroque Image. They are: Gauvin Alexander Bailey, associate professor of art history at Clark University; Pamela M. Jones, associate professor of art history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston; Franco Mormando, associate professor of Italian studies at Boston College, and Thomas Worcester, associate professor of history at College of the Holy Cross.

“The Worcester Art Museum enjoys a long tradition of partnering and pioneering,” said Welu. “This exhibition exemplifies both. By drawing upon the resources and expertise at Clark, Holy Cross and other colleges and universities, this project delves into new territories, embraces new audiences, and connects our past with our experience today.”

Related Events
A series of lectures and gallery talks, Hope and Healing in Context, explores the historical, art historical, religious and medical aspects of plague. Public, guided tours are offered in April and May. For a schedule of events, visit the Worcester Art Museum's web site at or call 508.799.4406. To arrange for a private tour for groups of 10 or more, call the Tour Coordinator at 508.799.4406, x3130. A printed gallery guide and an audio tour will also be available to enhance the gallery experience.

Accompanying the exhibition Hope and Healing: Painting in Italy in a Time of Plague, 1500-1800, a color-illustrated catalogue features all paintings in the show and contains a series of scholarly essays presenting original research about the paintings in their artistic and social-religious contexts. The catalogue will be available in The Museum Shop for $39.95.

The exhibition and catalogue have been made possible by contributions from Atlantic Tele-Network, inc., Allen M. Glick, Clark University Class of 1963; a grant from the Old Masters in Context program of the Samuel M. Kress Foundation; The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation; and by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts, which believes that a great nation deserves great art. Additional support has been provided by the Worcester Telegram & Gazette and WCRB Classical 102.5 FM Boston.

About the Worcester Art Museum
The Worcester Art Museum, which opened to the public in 1898, is world-renowned for its 35,000-piece collection of paintings, sculpture, decorative arts, photography, prints, drawings and new media. The works span 5,000 years of art and culture, ranging from ancient Roman mosaics to Colonial silver, Impressionist paintings and contemporary art. Dedicated to the promotion of art and art education, the Museum offers a year-round studio art and art appreciation program that enrolls over 6,000 adult and youth students each year. Public tours are offered Saturdays at 11 a.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m., September through May. Audio tours are also available in English and Spanish.

Museum hours are Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Thursday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. (evening hours sponsored by Commerce Bank), and Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults, $6 for seniors and full-time college students with current ID, and FREE for Members and all youth 17 and under. Admission is also FREE for everyone on Saturday mornings, 10 a.m.-noon (sponsored by The TJX Companies, Inc. and Massachusetts Electric, a National Grid Company). The Museum is located at 55 Salisbury St., Worcester, Mass., easily accessible from the Massachusetts Turnpike (I-90), Route 290 and Route 9. Free parking is available near entrances on Salisbury, Lancaster and Tuckerman streets. For more information, call (508) 799-4406.