Art in Times of Corona
In the days of world’s Corona anxiety, rise and float are images from earlier periods in history, in which plague of large magnitude erupted. Although the global village of 2020 is neither like the medieval globe nor the one that still existed in most of the 20th century, it is not clear whether this is an advantage or disadvantage. The early epidemics in history were geographically limited due to mobility restrictions, which are almost completely eliminated nowadays of 21th century. So the distribution ended at the borders of the continent, usually between two seas, two rivers or deserts. On the other hand, the helplessness was greater, the lack of knowledge and poor hygiene habits created optimal incubation and infection environments for a variety of bacteria and viruses. For example, well poisoners succeeded in their task around the uncontrolled shared water reservoirs in villages and towns, where water quality was not monitored, could not be checked, and they did not always know that water could carry diseases.
In earlier periods, not so far away from today, water for public use was often polluted because water and food sources were adjacent to wastewater and drainage areas. An example of this can be found in the book "Love in the Times of Cholera", in which Gabriel Garcia Marquez writes a story that spans several decades in Latin America in the seam of the 19th-20th centuries. Between the great exotic descriptions there is an ancient magnificent city that suffers a criminal negligence in the sanitation department; there is a large market in that city that is located near the Caribbean Sea and is full of a variety of goods of all kinds, food for the most part and other goods. In the water at the market is described a particularly varied and disgusting waste, from rotten food to wastewater, the bodies of animals, and later also human bodies that are described as floating uninterrupted between tourist boats, seemingly a routine description of a colorful and vibrant big city.
These images probably circulated around the world at list until the mid 20th century. In the Caribbean area the heat further adds to the potential for rot, fermentation and disease spread, alongside wars that take place on the plot. Cholera is just an obvious symptom that is recurring among populations. In fact, wars worldwide throughout history have increased the conditions for epidemic outbreaks due to the bodies stacked outdoors and no one can handle and bury them, due to famine and scarcity conditions, because of masses of refugees living in risky conditions without running water, without sanitation, without basic medical means, drugs, disposable treatment tools and disinfectants.
The horrific occurrences of epidemics are also found in visual art in various ways throughout history. Artists have addressed the plague scenes according to their time and perception, in the shadow of political, religious and class influences. An example of this can be seen in an illustration from a 14th century encyclopedic manuscript depicted in color typical of ancient quality manuscripts; the image, which is Initial C (first letter of a text page) within a painted square surrounded by text, depicts an indefinite space on a gold background. On the right, Bishop gestures as he carries his hand in front of monks on the left. The bishop is identified by his mitre, robe and podium or altar in front of him. The monks are identified with robes and tonsure haircuts. The monks' faces and scalps are dotted with smallpox, as opposed to the cleanest bishop. In the illustration, there is a definite statement that the priest is protected from the plague under the patronage of God and the plague has been associated with heresy and sin. The audience of monks receives instructions from the priest on how to heal and of course a blessing. The epidemic here is depicted in the naïve medieval style in the prominent orange dots. A reference to the healthy priest attributes the plague to a religious issue, namely sin and punishment.
Sick monks are a rare subject in art, since they are usually described as righteous and those who help the public in the sick. In the next example, a 15th century manuscript illustration depicts monks treating black plague patients. The illustration contains many details that are easy to identify. The building looks like a monastery hospital with its arches openings. A monk with a tonsure and even a halo holding a food container, this is St. Francis. Headdressed nuns treat the patients' wounds with the methods of the period. The lying or sitting patients are marked prominently in red pox. The patients have stunned faces as opposed to the noble faces of the Holy Monk and the nuns. It is very clear here that mental purity justifies the purity of the body and its health. There are no horror scenes of the dead in this description, but rather an emphasis on the compassion and dedication of the clergy, who do not recoil away from touching patients and treating them with sensitivity. The wooden beds themselves are a sign of good care at this time, where not every person has a roof and bed.
Another example can be found in the 15th-century work by French artist Josse Lieferinxe, describing the plague in seventh-century Italy and the burial of many dead. There is a parallel scene in the city sky in which God appears to bless Sebastian's image as he is naked and has hit by many arrows, according to his common and identified image at the time of his martyrdom. St. Sebastian was the saint to whom the believers prayed for protection and the saint kneeled before God and spoke for the public. Under this description in the painting, there is a war in the city sky between a white angel on the left and a demonic image of a flying creature holding a weapon and representing the plague. The epidemic is described here on three visual levels and on three ideas levels: on earth - human beings dealing with the plague and its consequences, in the skies of the city - the battle between good and evil, angel and demon, and in its supreme sphere - the holy mediator between humans and God. It is a religious work that educates the public and introduces the saint to whom help should be sought during the plague.
In the next print from the 17th century, a much more earthly approach can be seen; the epidemic is represented by the periodical head-to-toe appearance of a physician dressed in anti-plague aids, which include waxed leather cloak, gloves, a hat, a mask and glasses as well as a rod for removing the mob. The odd mask carries a beak which probably contained fragrant mixtures. The mask is designed to protect against air contaminated by decay according to ancient Miasma theory, which claims that the epidemics are due to air contaminated with rotten organic matter. This dress design is attributed to Charles de Lorme, the chief physician of the kings of France and the Medici House in the mid 16th century. His work was based on Parcelsian alchemy (renowned alchemist Paracelsus (1480–1541)) like many physicians at the time. De Lorme used to cook medical drugs based on alchemy theories. He gained a reputation as a physician with long-lived patients and also he himself lived to the age of 94. Therefore, do not underestimate the plague’s costume he designed.
De Lorme's character is particularly interesting in the art-medical and historical context. His portrait is documented in a 1630 print by Jacques Callot. The portrait is centered in a mandala from the worlds of alchemy, which made of concentric circles containing many symbolic elements; The physician figure is in the center of an ellipse inside the star that looks like a star of David. The angles are filled with Latin words and letters correctly to the character of an educated physician. Around the star is a Ouroboros ring that bites its own tail (a central alchemical image that refers to the cyclicality of the alchemical process and its allegedly ability resurrect dead) and features various descriptions of growth and various symbolic scenes. Below the ring to the left is a barking dog and a dragon to the right, among them a variety of signs and letters that probably carry significant themes in the style of alchemy manuscripts that were at the height of their influence during his time.
Alchemy was a huge pseudo-scientific world of research and evolving medicine, which sometimes assisted in healing and often resulted in agony and death. But the church and its holy men in the ecclesiastical sphere were traditionally considered healers long before alchemy swept the European science world and even after its public interest died in the early 18th century. Accordingly, in the next 18th-century work, St. Bernard Tolomei appears as a mediator between the people of Siena and the personification of the plague. The image of the saint is depicted in a large, bright white cloak of the Benedictine order of Oliveti. Facing the saint is the plague as a half-dressed laughing skeleton. An angel hovers above the saint. Saint Bernardo was born in the late 13th century and died in the 14th century when a plague raged in the city of Siena. To fulfill his role as a priest, he left his place of solitude on Mount Oliveto and went with his monks to care for the sick. In August 1348, he himself fell victim to the plague. 82 other monks who dedicated themselves to helping patients perished in the plague. The Catholic Church recognized Bernardo as a saint in 1644 and indeed his hagiography is beautifully tailored to the role of the saint of plague. This painting is wonderful in its simplicity; against the background of a dark city, characters are depicted, some dead, some carrying other sick figures, the dead piling on each other. A man on the lower right kneels between the bodies and covers his face, pointing to the laughing skeleton. A shocking description of a toddler lying on the ground in the center of the painting tells the whole tragedy. Monks in white and an angel shining above them represent the light war in the dark against the hideous figure of death. The epidemic in the form of a skeleton is recognized from the famous image of The Death Dance, a recurring motif in many emblems and paintings, featuring laughing and dancing skeletons, as the man of the rampant, victorious death. The plague figure holds a nightlight, inside which is a lit candle. A candle is a classic image in the art of limited human life. The plague now holds a lantern, which controls and rules human life, in its other hand there’s a tool for extinguishing the candle. The depiction of the plague in this painting is simply symbolized and displays blatant horror. But this is actually a heroic biographical episod of the Holy Monk.
A more modern depiction of an epidemic, but no less heroic, can be seen in the painting by Antoine-Jean Gros of the 19th century, depicting Napoleon on his visit to Jaffa, while suffering from the plague of his soldiers. The General visits his soldiers in the courtyard of a mosque in Jaffa, which serves as a military hospital. The description is attributed to March 1799, to the epidemic that broke out during the battles between Napoleon and the Ottoman forces. Bonaparte, contrary to the advice of his physician who reaches out to stop him, sends a bare hand to the plague victim's wound. On the left, two Arabs serve bread to patients. To the right a blind soldier tries to reach the General. In the front, in the shadows, soldiers are dying exhausted. The General is presented as the heroic embodiment of the war. He is presented with a parallel to Jesus healing the sick as he is in a halo of light and his hand is extended in an almost sacred gesture. In contrast to the flying demon or laughing skeleton we saw earlier, the plague here presented in realistic elements in the form of its consequences among the soldiers. But beyond the realistic performance, the Orientalist style of painting and the display of the Eastern magic in architecture, characters and dressing, it also serves as a means of glorifying the ruler who receives divine attributes here.
A completely different epidemic embodied in one of the biblical themes found in many works of art throughout history is the death of the firstborn, who in Christian descriptions is the latest in ten Egyptian epidemics and in the Passover legend is called "Egyptian Beatings." There are many examples of this in different eras and in the romantic-Orientalist painting before us from the 19th century we will find a tragic and touching description of Pharaoh the father seated holding his son on his knees, the son lying without a spirit of life. The mother holds her son and cries on his body. There are very realistic elements in expressing the emotion and harsh picture of the plague results. All this aside the palace's descriptions of the wealth and the servants. The king sits upright in his royal chair, wearing his crown and is frozen faced, with the exception of the most convincing nuances of a teary-eye and facial muscle tension that is depicted subtly hyper-realistic in the cheeks, nose, lips and eyebrows. On the bottom right are white dressed men, presumably religious priests, gesturing in prayer-blessing and participate in Pharaoh's family tragedy, the King God. Behind the Pharaoh's throne there is a vibrant occurrence that includes many figures, men and boys who seem to be performing some ritual which involves playing music and lighting candles. A bearded man in a cloak and head-covered appears in the upper right in the dark, reaching forward as if to stop the ritual that lost to the plague. Beside him is another figure in a similar cloak. These are probably Moses and Aaron from the biblical story. The plague in this picture is depicted in the tragic show of a mourning family flooded with emotion.
Finally, from a review of a selection of Western artwork depicting epidemics, it is possible to identify how the epidemic's portrait varies from period to period, in style, in perception, and in emphasis. From naïve descriptions of early scriptures depicting the plague at points on the skin, continue through the praises of saints sacrificing themselves for the believers during the plague, the use of the laughing skeleton motif and the use of the doctor's image with the beak, images that were profoundly popular in folk works and terrorize the public. Epidemic descriptions evolve with the Zeitgeist as in the heroic portrayal of Napoleon as a saint and even as the heir to the place of traditional saints. Finally, a biblical epidemic account that does not sanctify anyone but shows the opposite of what is expected: the Egyptian king considered God is depicted in an almost intimate scene of human mourning.
We are in a historic moment that will surely leave a mark on the world of culture and art. How will the current epidemic be described? What will be left behind and what will the memories look like? What do clerics around the world think about the Corona? More than anything, the current epidemic's portrait seems to be consolidating as an economic crisis. The tourism business is probably the first to pay the price. Will the portrait to be preserved as the corona memory be a masked face? Or maybe a paralyzed airport, an abandoned hotel and an empty pool? Days will tell what Art in the Times of Corona will give birth to.