Prof. Zhang Gan: “Plagues and Western Art: the Impact of Diseases and Plagues on Western Paintings”

On the afternoon of April 2, Prof. Zhang Gan of the Tsinghua Academy of Arts & Design delivered a special report on "Plagues and Western Art: the Impact of Diseases and Plagues on Western Paintings" as the tenth lecture of "Chunfeng Lectures".


Prof. Zhang Gan illustrated  the impact of "diseases and plagues" on Western fine art from three perspectives, namely, plague in art, new themes from plague, and art interrupted by plagues.

I. Plagues in Artistic Works


Plagues and diseases are found throughout human civilization. People suffering from disasters often document or record their thoughts on the events. Re-thinking of life triggered by diseases and plagues, such as thoughts on the cycle of birth and death, the relationship between humans and society, as well as the impact of plagues per se on the society, all exerts a lasting influence on art.


In Western paintings, there are some works related to plagues or diseases. These artworks  show how plagues affect  people visually and graphically, reflecting the disasters and catastrophes brought to mankind while sprinkled with  the glory of humanity .


The Isenheim Altarpiece of the Musée Unterlinden at Colmer depicts the treatment of the disease in a monastery hospital during the plague of ergot poisoning.

The Isenheim Altarpiece, Matthias Grünewald


There are some other representative masterpieces  reflecting plagues and diseases in the Western history of fine arts.

The Plague of Ashdod, 1628-1630

Oil on canvas, 148x198 cm, the Louvre Museum, Paris

Napoleon Visiting the Pesthouse at Jaffa

1804, oil on canvas, 532x720 cm, the Louvre Museum, Paris

Death in the Sickroom

1893, 134cm × 160cm, Munch Museum, Oslo

1895, oil on canvas, 150cm × 168cm, Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo


The psychological impact of plagues is perfectly presented in  the form of paintings. Art, as records of human history, is not only aesthetic representations but also important vessels  of human thoughts and civilization.

II. Themes from Plagues


Plagues have brought about several  new themes in the history of Western painting. For example, "Triumph of Death" and "Dance of Death" are two themes about  inevitable death: the former theme is more positive, as it advises that people should work hard and strive for the best since death is inevitable; the latter is more pessimistic, stressing that all people, including kings, friars or people of all walks of life, cannot escape death eventually. 


Such thoughts on Death were prevalent in the 14th century, very much related to the underdeveloped medicine and science and technology of the time. The theme "Triumph of Death" can be found in paintings by Italian, Belgian, French and German artists .

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

oil on panel, 117x162cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

German artist Hans-Holbein (1497-1543), Dance of Death

Albrecht Dürer was the greatest artist of the German Renaissance. His "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" depicts four horsemen, representing conquest, war, hunger and death.


These works represent the pessimism of the West facing plagues in the specific period of the 16th century. These feelings are a portrayal of the world at that time, representing people's views and understanding of the world. Meanwhile, artists also satirize social reality through their works, providing us with a certain perspective of the present world.  


However, this makes up only a small part of the history of Western painting. Most works depict life with positive and optimistic realism. The themes derived from plagues are not all pessimistic.

III. Art Interrupted by Plagues


In 1951, art historian Milad Maes published Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death: The Arts, Religion and Society in the Mid-Fourteenth Century. In the book, the author points out that the Black Death has a profound impact on the style and content of art in Florence and Siena. It was  the fear of plagues that caused the sponsors of religious paintings to stop supporting  artistic development for over half a century, which consequently brought the paintings back  to a more traditional, devout and spiritual style.


Maes believes that the Black Death delayed the development of Renaissance style and humanistic art for decades. However, more art historians, such as Hank Van Ors, pointed out that many key artists and patrons died from  the plague, accounting  for the delay in changes of the artistic style.

One of the earliest works with one point perspective technique

The Birth of Mary 1342, Tempera on Wood, 188 x 183 cm, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena



Titian (1488/90-1576), Pietà, 1576, Oil on canvas, 352 x 349 cm, Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice

Titian was infected with the plague and died of high fever on August 27, 1576. Lamentation of Christ was completed by his student Palma after his death.


Another plague that has an important impact on Western art is the Spanish Flu, which lasted from January 1918 to December 1920. Egon Schiele and Klimt are two prominent Austrian painters died from the Spanish Flu.

Emergency hospital set up in Kansas

Egon Schiele portrays himself as San Sebastian. The arrow represents pestilence as well as gossips denying his art.

Self-Portrait as St. Sebastian (Poster for Arnot Gallery exhibition), 1914/15, Indian ink and opaque, 67 x 50 cm, Historisches Museum der Stadt Wien, Vienna


In the 1980s and early 1990s, The outbreak of AIDS, caused by human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), swept across the United States and all over the world. Since the start of the AIDS epidemic, more than 70 million people have been infected with the virus  and about 35 million people have died of it .

Keith Haring, Ignorance = Fear, 1989, Poster Collection Noirmontartproduction, Paris. 

Haring died of AIDS in 1990 at the age of 31.


We are now facing the test of humanity by plague. Diseases force us to think about several issues: first, the relationship between man and nature (man and the environment, man and animal); second, the relationship between people and society (individual and the society as a whole); third, the relationship between people (with relatives, friends and strangers); fourth, the relationship between countries (equality, fraternity or narrow nationalism).


This gripping   history of plague-related art unveils  the despair and struggle of mankind, and the untimely death of many outstanding artists, but more than everything else, hope and strength. Art serves as a constant reminder of  how to get along with nature, society and the past. We should face the challenges together and build a community of shared futures with a more loving, equal and broader mindset.


Hopefully, the power of art will continue to grow  with human civilization , and art will remain unfading  as humanity prevails.

Source: Academic Affairs Office

Editor: Zhao Ruohan