Pandemics of the Past

Published April, 2020

Attributed to Joachim Patinir (Netherlandish, c. 1480–before 1524), Three Saints in a Landscape. Oil on panel. Gift of Margaret T. Martin in Memory of David T. Martin, 1999.41.2

Social distancing practices have been used throughout history to prevent widespread disease, particularly in cramped and unventilated medieval cities. During the fifteenth century, Europeans experienced several devastating bouts of plague, also known as the Black Death, transmitted by rats and fleas on merchant ships that had docked in busy port cities like Venice and Genoa. At the time, very little was understood about how plague was transmitted, but city officials and medical practitioners advised minimizing human contact. In order to mitigate the transmission of disease across political borders and city walls, travelers were often quarantined, and could have been forced to spend forty days in isolation before permitted to enter their destination city, in hopes that any disease they may have been carrying would not be brought to the mainland. In fact, the word quarantine derives from the Italian and Latin word for forty, quaranta, based on the forty days and nights that Christ isolated in the desert to defend himself from temptation, as recounted in biblical scripture.

Beyond these measures of social distancing and quarantine, many religious Christians also believed that plague could be conquered through prayer. Without a clear understanding of how transmission occurred, worshipers appealed to saints who had been tortured and martyred for practicing their faith or who suffered from disease but continued to inspire others to good works and selflessness. Artists painted altarpieces and panels depicting saints with intensely described flesh wounds to serve as the focus of prayers for protection against the pestilence.

In Flemish artist Joachim Patinir’s (1480-1524) painting Three Saints in a Landscape,two holy figures flank St. Roche, protector of the sick. Roche, who devoted his life to nursing the infirm in hospitals, developed an ulcer on his leg, a clear indication that he had been infected by the plague. The artist depicts St. Roche lifting his robe to reveal his saintly attribute–his ulcer or bubo–to remind worshipers with ailments of their own of Roche’s eventual recovery through his faith and good will. In the painting, a dog offers him bread, a representation of the faithful companion who delivered the saint a loaf every day to sustain him through his isolation and healing.

Carlo Dolci (Italian, 1616-1686), St. Sebastian. Oil on canvas. The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund, 1937.468

St. Sebastian was a popular saint who had been a Christian soldier in Rome when the Roman Empire prohibited the practice of Christianity. Sebastian survived a barrage of arrows as punishment for his faith only to be decapitated when he still refused to renounce Christianity after recovering from the wounds. During the Renaissance, artists commonly depicted Sebastian with arrows piercing his flesh or puncture wounds from the arrows. Depictions of St. Sebastian’s hurt body reminded Christians contemplating their own health and mortality that he survived the harsh penalty for holding onto his faith in a period of physical weakness. During a particularly bad outbreak of plague, Carlo Dolci (1616-1686) offers a closeup of St. Sebastian punctured by an arrow, with eyes tilted upward in recognition of another painful arrow about to strike and his devotion, directed towards the heavens. In this version of Sebastian’s martyrdom, devotees could contemplate the saint’s humanity before his affliction, and could follow his eyes upward, outside of the frame of the painting to the comforts of faith. While some may see this as an image of pain and suffering, in the religious context in which it was made, it is a portrait of a survivor.