Visualization of Pandemics in Western Culture


  • Oksana Zadorozhna National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy



death, plague, European art, Dance of Death, coronavirus, COVID-19


Epidemics and the associated feeling of closeness to death at all times caused strong emotions which were embodied in art. It is difficult to overestimate the impact of pandemics on different spheres of society. Deadly diseases not only devastated cities and entire regions but also created the conditions for the appearance of new sciences, art movements, architectural, artistic and literary works. This article analyzes visual images related to the theme of the pandemic and examines the meanings behind the works devoted to mass epidemics.
The plague epidemic reinforced the themes of death, suffering, cruelty and madness in European art. In the era of the “Black Death”, there are allegorical plots “Dance of Death”, “Triumph of Death”, “Three Living and Three Dead”, which later became a separate synthetic genre. Another echo of the plague is the plot “Death, which plays chess”, common in the painting of Northern Europe. So in the 14th century the plots of macabre became popular. Macabre is the dance of death, a medieval custom that consisted of a ceremony that took place in a cemetery and was based on an imaginary dance of the dead.
Now humankind faces something that is just partly dependent on it, something unusual. Each of these kinds of clashes allows us to stop the automatism of our actions, words, things, rituals, to pause and see the emptiness where it was not yet possible to move. Not only geographically or temporally but also existentially. In other words, the epidemic is an extremely rare cause for reflection, which hints that we are not alone in the world and not everything in the world depends on us. This pandemic is different from war, which is the work of human hands.
What kind of art will the coronavirus become? And will it? For now, it looks like a minimalist: it works not with a thing or concept, but with the absence of a thing. These works bring us closer to our ancestors and show that we still are children of nature and depend on its whims, despite all the achievements of science and medicine. Moreover, our fears must be consistent with the current pandemic, because the coronavirus in scale and lethality is significantly different from the plague, cholera or Spanish flu.

Manuscript received 24.08.2020

Author Biography

Oksana Zadorozhna, National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy

postgraduate student at the Department of Cultural Studies of the Faculty of Humanities of the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (NaUKMA). Main research fields: visual culture, macabre iconology, Thanatos.


Anonymous. 2001. “Würzburg dance of death.” Arbor mundi 8:74–84 [in Russian].

Boeckl, Christine M. 2000. Images of Plague and Pestilence: Iconography and Iconology. Truman State University Press.

Chudinov, Aleksandr. 1910. Dictionary of foreign words included in the Russian language. [in Russian].

Crawfurd, Raymond. 1914. Plague and Pestilence in Literature and Art. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Daniel, Milan. 1990. Tajne stezky smrtonosu. Moscow: Progress [in Russian].

Delumeau, Jean. 1994. Horrors in the West. [in Russian].

Delumeau, Jean. 2003. Sin and fear: The formation of guilt in Western civilization (13-18 centuries). Ekaterinburg: Publishing House Ural University [in Russian].

Huizinga, Johan. 2013. Autumn of the Middle Ages. [inRussian].

Korol, Denys. 2020. “Pandemic passions.” [in Russian].

Mirimanov, Vil. 2001. “Invitation to dance. Danse macabre.” Arbor mundi 8:39–73 [in Russian].

Mirimanov, Vil. 2002. The fourth rider of the Apocalypse: Aesthetics of death. Death / Eternity in ritual art from the Paleolithic to the Renaissance. Moscow: RSUH; IVGI. (Readings on the history

and theory of culture; Issue 32) [in Russian].

Mirimanov, Vil. 2003. Revelation of death: Danse macabre in the art of the late Middle Ages. In Theorems of culture / Independent Academy of Aesthetics and Liberal Arts. Moscow: A.D. & T. (Almanac “Academic Notebooks”; No 9) [in Russian].

Mynda, Natalia. 2013. “The image of the plague in world literature.” Bulletin of the Moscow State Linguistic University 21(681):88–99 [in Russian].

Paevsky, Aleksei, and Anna Khoruzhaya. 2018. In general, the plague! History of diseases from fever to Parkinson’s. [in Russian].

Reutin, Mikhail. 2003. Dance of Death. In Dictionary of Medieval Culture, 360–4. Moscow [in Russian].