The Black Plague was a fearful, terrible time. But it also spawned some of the greatest works of art the world has ever seen. The fact is, many of the Western world’s most precious works of art were created during those hard times. Even then... there was always art.
The 14th century was a particularly bad one in human history. And it’s a chilling reminder of the deleterious effects of climate change, in this case, caused by a decrease in temperature. Life in Medieval Europe was already extremely hard. Most people, ie., the peasants, only ate meat a couple of time a year, and probably bathed as many times in a decade. The average life expectancy was around 35 years. And the changing climate resulted in bone-chilling cold weather and floods, and led to the Great Famine of 1316-1317. Coupled with starvation, there was a typhoid epidemic, as well as the spread of anthrax among herds of farm animals.
Not surprisingly, these hard times also led to wars and uprisings all across Europe. Things were undeniably bad. But, as if that weren’t bad enough, these exceptionally hard times were to be followed, by mid-century, by the devastation of the Black Plague. In a span of less than 10 years, it's been estimated that this flea-borne disease wiped out as many as 80 million people across Europe. Phew!
Thankfully, though, the 15th century was a bit better. Accelerated by the widespread use of a new invention called the printing press, by the middle of the 15th century, the Renaissance was in full swing. The flowering of ideas and creativity was evident everywhere - in science, architecture, art, music, and literature. But it’s worth remembering that, even then, the plague did not disappear. In fact, it continued to ravage local communities across the continent for the next 300 years.
Curiously, many of the artists we know as the ‘Old Masters’ - including Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Titian, Tintoretto, Hans Holbein, Van Dyck, Hieronymus Bosch, and Albrecht Durer, all lived during these trying times. Of course, much of the subject matter of their works reflected these dark times... none more so than the death and chaos depicted in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, for example. No one knew what caused the disease, and fear was pervasive. Foreigners and strangers were looked upon suspiciously. Travelers, such as Gypsies and wandering Jewish groups, were persecuted and even hunted down.
In perspective, the effects of the current Covid-19 pandemic, though certainly bound to be challenging for quite some time to come, will certainly not be nearly as bad as those Medieval times. To be sure, times are about to get pretty tough. There will be millions out of work, and many thousands more dying. But there will be great achievements, too, new and better ways of communicating, socializing, and inspiring ourselves. Doubtless, we will require a vaccine before we can really get 'back to normal'. That will surely come, probably sooner than we think. In the meantime, unlike in the 14th century, at least we know what we must do. Our future needn't take us backwards!
One of the biggest differences, of course, is the knowledge and information we already have. We know what causes this illness, and we know what we must do to contain it. So, now that we are ‘re-opening’, let’s be smart, and do what we must all do to be able to stay open. To prevent more catastrophic outbreaks, let's all continue to practice social distancing and proper hygiene. Let’s be smart, and beat this thing!
Unlike Mr. Bosch, I prefer to make my art a joyful, magical experience. I'll do my part, and keep doing what I do - check it out!