Artists Magazine


Great crises often generate great art along with profound social change. The Renaissance, perhaps the greatest efflorescence of science and art in Western civilization, was sparked in the 14th century by the search for a response to the bubonic plague known as the Black Death. Pandemics, epidemics, plagues and pestilence are an inherent part of the human condition. Often driven by fear, the reaction to illness can be traced back centuries through the work of poets, philosophers and artists. Disease is an invisible enemy, but the ability of artists to imagine the unknown and give it form, has illuminated and documented the impact of various diseases on individuals and on society as a whole throughout history.

Although we each suffer sickness in our own private way, a pandemic reveals the pain of isolation and trauma as a collective experience. Examining artworks produced during and after plagues of the past offers a chance to reflect on our relationships to our family, friends and other fellow humans—as well as our place and vulnerability in the world today.


History’s worsts pandemic, the Black Death, was an outbreak of the bubonic, opposite). This disease is a bacterial infection now treated with antibiotics. It’s not particularly contagious, so it has lost some of its early stigma. Alternatively, the physical and psychological impact associated with the bubonic plague and depicted in art of the 14th and 15th centuries can still affect our reaction to epidemics.

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