10 of the best plague art paintings

If you think the coronavirus is bad take a look at some of these paintings depicting plague art that show how bad things in the middle ages and even the 20th century really were. To put things in perspective the Black Death, which was the deadliest pandemic in human history killed more than 20 million people in Europe—almost one-third of the continent’s population.  The black death (plague) was also thought to have started in China but History Today now suggests it started in the spring of 1346 in the steppe region. So lets take a look at some of the best plague paintings painted by the world’s most famous artists.


1. Illustration taken from the book Gilles li Muisis, Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale de Belgique

This plague art painting of the 1340s depicts residents of a town burning Jews, who were blamed for causing the disease.  Paintings and illustrations like these interestingly do not often show people suffering from the disease itself. Maybe this is because plague became so commonplace back then that people didn’t consider it worth depicting. Medieval people were unsurprisingly keen to know what caused the Black Death and many chose to blame the Jews. They were often tortured and made to falsely confess to poisoning the wells. 


2. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Triumph of Death, c. 1562

plague paintings

The painting hangs inside Madrid’s Prado Museum and depicts a customary theme in medieval literature: the dance of Death. Here we can see a cart being driven by a skeleton, the cart is filled with skulls, in the background bodies hang from gallows and are tied to a pike. Nobody gets out of this plague painting alive, that’s for sure. The dance of death refers to the involuntary actions of the victims of plague, the primary message being that death strikes everyone, without exception.


3. Arnold Böcklin, Plague, 1898

arnold bocklin the plague

Bocklin’s plague painting came about after he heard about the plague appearing in Bombay in 1898. Death here rides what looks like a dragon through a medieval town. The painting is housed in the Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland.


4. Serre’s Chevalier Roze à la Tourette

plague paintings

This is a painting of Marseille during the outbreak of a pandemic in 1720. Nicolas Roze, better knows as Chevalier Roze was a French aristocrat. He is remembered for his heroism in 1720 during the Great Plague of Marseille. Roze established a quarantine by setting up checkpoints, converted La Corderie into a field hospital, and organised distribution of humanitarian supply to the population. The Great Plague of Marseille was the last major outbreak of bubonic plague in western Europe. Arriving in Marseille, in 1720, the disease killed a total of 100,000 people: 50,000 in the city during the next two years and another 50,000 to the north in surrounding provinces and towns.


5. Salvator Rosa’s Human Frailty

plague art

In 1655 an awful plague swept Naples. The artist’s son and brother, his sister and her family (she had 5 children) all died of this horrendous plague. The woman in this plague painting is Salvator’s mistress and the mother of his son. Death has his hand around the artist’s son, obviously pointing to the fact that his poor son recently died from the plague. However, the longer you look at this painting the more you’ll be rewarded as it is just full of symbols. For example behind his mistress is a statue, Terminus, the Roman god of Death.  The cherubs blowing bubbles symbolises the brevity of human existence ‘man is but a bubble’.


6. Poussin’s The plague of Ashdod, 1630

the plague of ashdod

The Plague at Ashdod illustrates how successive plague epidemics affected the Italian population in the sixteenth century. Poussin actually painted this painting while the plague spread across Italy. It is based on the Old Testament account of an epidemic affecting the Philistines after they had captured the Ark of the Covenant.


7. Saint Sebastian Interceding for the Plague Stricken

plague paintings

St. Sebastian was a Roman military officer martyred about AD 300 by being shot full of arrows and then clubbed to death. He was prayed to for protection against the plague. St. Sebastian, pierced with arrows, kneels before God to plead on behalf of humanity, while an angel and a demon battle in the sky.

8. Gros’ Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa

famous plague paintings

The painting shows Napoleon in Jaffa on 11 March 1799, making a visit to his sick soldiers at the Armenian Saint Nicholas Monastery. The commission happened to dispel rumors that Napoleon gave lethal doses of opium to 50 plague victims in Jaffa during his retreat.


9. Schiele’s The Family

plague paintings

Over 30 million people worldwide lost their lives to the Spanish influenza between August of 1918 and March of 1919. This painting was unfinished at the time of Schiele’s death in 1918. It is called ‘The Family’ and is really quite sad. In it we see Schiele, his wife Edith and his unborn child. Edith caught Spanish Influenza and Schiele then wrote:

“Dear Mother Schiele, Edith got the Spanish Flu eight days ago and has pneumonia. She is six months pregnant. The disease is very serious and life-threatening; I am preparing myself for the worst”.

Poor Edith died when she was 6 months pregnant, Schiele died 3 days after she did.


10. Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait after Spanish Influenza, 1919

Edvard Munch The Spanish Flu

So as you would have read above, Schiele died of Spanish flu, Munch also got it but survived. Munch painted this work in 1919. As we see here Munch is wrapped in a dressing gown and blanket and does not look well. His mouth is open mouthed like that of the figure in his scream painting. By the summer of 1919, the Spanish influenza had finished.


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Bye for now!

Anna X

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