Renaissance art: The effects of the Black Death

Published 03 Mar 2017

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In recent years, scares of contagious diseases spread and gripped the minds of the global populace because of the threat of the newly discovered bacteria and airborne diseases such as sars and birdflu. Since the origin of these highly infectious diseases was around the Asian continent, countries in the west were alarmed and have quickly implemented certain measures to prevent the possible spread of these infections. Passengers coming from Asian countries were consistently checked as they arrive to their port entries. It seems that the hard lessons learned through the whip of the Black Plague across Europe have been indelibly etched in the minds of the western people. The Black Death is the worst disaster that has ever plagued human history. This statement is attested by historians, writers, and students who study the Medieval Period. Because of the havoc that the Plague has wreaked around Europe in the 14th century, and because of the trauma it has left on the population in general, traces of its horrors could even be felt today.

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The Plague, as it has been appropriately called, had reached such an epic proportion in terms of its fatalities and it never chooses its victims. Indiscriminately, people from every class – royal class, clergy, artisans, poets, peasants, wealthy and poor – has each have their share of its horror. It has been said that for an ordinary person today to have a grasp of how much destruction the Plague has inflicted Europe, one can just imagine a real nuclear war happening and its catastrophic effects (which, thankfully, until now hasn’t happened). Had it not been for the fact that surviving art works of those times are here to be observe and scrutinized by anyone interested, the question of how this terrifying event has shaped the psyche of the people at large from every class in the Renaissance Period, will leave everyone today wildly speculating on what might had been.

Boccaccio’s Decameron

Giovanni Boccaccio was a poet and a writer in Italy who lived in the 14th century; a time when people seemed to be experiencing a revival of past values. This period is more known today as the age of the Renaissance. During this time, there seems to be an explosion of expression in many facets of arts – in literature, painting and sculpting, architecture, and even in the area of politics. There seems to be a hunger for the recovery of the classical Grecian and Roman principles in the air. The period was aptly called the Renaissance, which means literally a “rebirth.” With this brief background in mind, one can properly think of this period as the cradle of arts, and it was around this time that many of the famous artists were born – Francesco Traini, Hans Holbein (the elder, and the younger), and Giovanni Boccaccio, to name just three among many. But, lest a complete portrayal of the time of the Renaissance skip the readers’ imagination, a note has to be mentioned regarding the dark side of this time, which when compared to the devastations that modern people have seen and heard so far, will not be out-dimmed. As stated briefly at the introductory part of this essay, the catastrophic plague which hit Europe at this particular time cannot be equaled in terms of its fatalities, and this, even with the disastrous outcome of the more recent tsunamis. Now, going back, Boccaccio was one of the famed artists of his time.

As an author, he has written several books, and one of them was the well-known The Decameron. In it, a detailed account of the Bubonic Plague from an eyewitness in the person of the writer (Boccaccio) was narrated. Boccaccio vividly described with the power of his descriptive words the plague itself – its effects in the bodies of those infected by it – as he observed its destructive outcome among the victims. The Decameron, in no uncertain terms, describes for modern-day readers what happened to the then one of the well-known cities in Italy – the city of Florence. According to Boccaccio, the great city of Florence had virtually become a cemetery because of the quick spread of this “death” which has afflicted the city. In one occasion, Boccaccio pointed out a scene where he saw traces of a “poor man’s” clothing picked and tossed by two pigs, and how after a while, the two brutes fell dead as though they were poisoned. There were also among the populace a number who remedied the foul odor emitting from the dead bodies and drugs with the fragrance of flowers, herbs, and spices – these they would sniff, and somehow the sweet and pungent odors would effect ease on their troubled minds (Halsall, 1996).

The Plague has so affected Giovanni Boccaccio that it moved him to make an account of it in one of his famous works. It stirred his poetic sensibilities which thankfully led to the preservation of a contemporary eyewitness account of Black Death.

Hans Holbein the Younger’s Dance of Death

Hans Holbein’s artwork, “Danse Macabre” also known as “Dance of Death,” like many artists, reflected medieval period’s environment. He was famous for his woodcuts and portraits. Although, he emerged later than Traini and Boccaccio, he nevertheless was influenced by the same concerns that the two earlier artists were occupied with in their respective times. For instance, in the Dance of Death, what it represented was the universality of death. It wishes to convey the inevitability of death among humans wealthy and poor alike. Death is an experience which all people share, and to where everyone will eventually go. As one might expect, although Dance of Death was shaped by the nightmares of 14th century, like the wars that France waged, and the famines that persisted during the period, the most pronounced of all these horrifying disasters was the Black Death which etched its marks among the wood cuts created by Holbein. Danse Macabre is comprised of what appears to be dancing skeletal figures from different status in life – monks, emperors, pope, a young fellow, etc. – all going down to the grave. That life is fragile, seems to be the clear statement of this work by Hans Holbein. The world and all of its glories are but passing.

Francesco Traini’s Triumph of Death

Traini’s “The Triumph of Death” depicts somewhat the same imagery as Holbein’s Dance of Death. Also, it is not far in terms of its theme from The Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio. Francesco Traini was, like the other two artists (Holbein and Boccaccio), hugely influenced by the Black Death. The Plague has sealed into the artist’s consciousness the morbidity of death. No one can escape death. It is ultimate in terms of its claim on humans. Again, as often is depicted among the art works of the Renaissance period, death is merciless and omnipresent. Triumph of Death was an impression received by the artist (Traini) from the horrors of the Bubonic Plague. Unlike Dance of Death and Decameron, the death that was represented in the fresco painted on the walls of Camposanto was in the person of an old woman who was cloaked in black holding a scythe. The paintings of Traini powerfully depicted a triumphant Death which holds no respect with regards to status whether poor or wealthy. Status in material world is but temporal and fleeting. A person has to prepare for the next life where soul will forever live either with God and his angels or with the demons in hell. It was emphasized in the paintings of Francesco Traini that no human might, nor human wisdom, could spare anybody from the coming One. The frescos on the walls of Camposanto in Pisa were loaded with religious and apocalyptic themes. They seem to convey the solemn truth that God recompenses man of his deeds whether evil or good. The Plague clearly was a whip of God. This was the common sentiment of people across Europe in the wake of Black Death. Of course, as portrayed in Traini’s The Triumph of Death, there are many possibilities that might have caused this overwhelming inflicting of death. These art works convey different possible reasons; some images in these paintings even suggest cynicism. Nevertheless, what is more pronounced is the fact that death is the great equalizer. It renders people equal – whether peasants, poets, artisans, popes, kings, and politicians (Tropp & D’Angelo).


Halsall, Paul. January 1996. Date Accessed: October 3, 2008.
Tropp, Sandra Fehl, D’Angelo, Ann Pierson. Essays in Context. Oxford University Press.

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