Visualization of Pandemics in Western Culture
Keywords: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
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