Hope and Healing: Painting in Italy in a Time of Plague, 1500-1800, on view from April 3rd through September 25th at the Worcester Art Museum, is the first North American exhibition to examine the response of visual art to the bubonic plague. Represented artists include Tintoretto, Canaletto, Mignard, Sweerts, and Van Dyck. The exhibit is not, however, limited to painting. There are a number of print works, including poetry, sermons, and biblical commentary. While modern scholarship tends to focus on the political consequences and health measures of the plague, this exhibit contains many artworks depicting the Church’s response to the plague, including special prayers to saints that mediated between God and the sufferers, confession, fasting, charity, public penitential processions, and special meditations.
Also present are artworks depicting “plague saints” such as St. Michael, St. Sebastian, and St. Roch, all associated with the plague and healing in various ways. St. Michael is said to have appeared sheathing a sword at the end of a long penitential procession led by Pope Gregory the Great, symbolizing the end of God’s wrath. (The plague ended at that moment.) St. Sebastian was a guard under Diocletian, and when he was discovered to be a closet Christian, he was sentenced to death by archers. He survived the firing squad and later was beaten to death and left in a sewer. It is said that a basilica was built in his honor in Rome, putting a sudden end to a plague raging at the time. St. Roch made a pilgrimage to Rome and cured plague sufferers on the way by marking the sign of the cross on their foreheads, but after leaving Rome he contracted the disease himself, withdrawing to a secluded area where he was fed by a local dog that brought him bread.
The bubonic plague, like most diseases of the pre-modern era, was thought to be a manifestation of God’s displeasure with humanity. The pathogen that causes the plague was first discovered by Alexandre Yersin in 1884. The connection between the massive number of rats in plague-infested cities and the disease itself was made shortly thereafter.
Curating the exhibition are Gauvin Alexander Bailey, associate professor of art history at Clark University; Pamela M. Jones, associate professor of art history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston; Franco Mormando, associate professor of Italian studies at Boston College; and Thomas Worcester, associate professor of history at the College of the Holy Cross. The exhibit is co-organized by the Worcester Art Museum, Clark University, and the College of the Holy Cross.