The most famous European visitation of plague was the fourteenth-century epidemic often called the Black Death. But plague recurred in waves for many centuries. In the seventeenth century, Italy suffered several devastating outbreaks. Fairly accurate estimates of the losses during that period are available through extant records. For example, in 1656, over 100,000 people died of plague in Naples. Strange to imagine, this carnage coincided with the religious Counter Reformation and the extraordinary artistic output of the Baroque.

This intriguing collection of essays analyzes the effect of plague on painting, and assesses the utility of artwork as a source for the religious and social history. The essays concentrate on the cities that suffered major epidemics, such as Milan, Naples, Palermo, Rome, and Venice, and on portrayals of particular "plague saints," such St Roch, St Sebastien, St Carlo Borromeo, St Rosalie of Palermo and St Luigi Gonzaga. The artists include Tiepolo, Tintoretto, Crespi, Sweets, Canaletto, and Van Dyck.


In an introductory essay Franco Mormando reviews the historiography of plague in Europe and explains the potential of artwork as a historical source. With many black and white illustrations, the essays explore the roles of specific saints as caregivers, healers, and intercessors and they analyze the social values of charity, respect for the dead, and religious faith that were promoted through the religion.

The wounds of Sebastien and Roch linked those two saints to the symptoms of plague, whereas the contributions of other saints in the relief of plague victims led to their canonization. Working strenuously to care for the sick and exposing oneself to contagion were activities that proclaimed the heroic virtues of any would-be saint, activities worthy of emulation. Some images convey devastation, fear, and despair in the plague victims; others seem to show that plague provides a pretext for classical portrayal of the nude human form in unusual postures.

A catalogue of the exhibition with scholarly analysis of 37 full-page, coloured reproductions of works loaned by 31 galleries in four countries completes the book. An analytic index expands the potential for this volume in teaching.


Catalogue of an Exhibition held at the Worcester Art Gallery in 2005


Clark University, Worcester Art Museum, and University of Chicago

Place Published

Worcester, Mass. and Chicago



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