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Cleveland Museum of Art collection shows how humanity coped with pandemics from Black Death to AIDS

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland logo The Plain Dealer Cleveland 4/26/2020 By Steven Litt,

CLEVELAND, Ohio — It’s tempting to think of the novel coronavirus pandemic as something truly novel because it’s rooted in a viral strain not identified previously in humans.

But there’s nothing new about plagues and pandemics. Humanity has been here before. The cultural record is packed with d 1/4 u00e9j 1/4 u00e0 vu.

In his 1722 book, “A Journal of The Plague Year,’’ Daniel Defoe speaks of the 1665 outbreak of bubonic plague in London in terms that sound eerily like today’s headlines.

The city compiled statistical “Bills of Mortality’’ in ways that anticipate today’s coronavirus curves. The Lord Mayor ordered houses with infected inhabitants to be nailed or padlocked shut — a cruel form of social distancing.

A fifth of London’s population perished. That was a year before the great fire that consumed much of the city.

The 14th century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio relates in his “Decameron’’ how 10 well-to-do young Florentines flee to a country villa during a bubonic plague outbreak known as the Black Death. They’re like the wealthy of today, leaving cities for second homes in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, or the Hamptons on Long Island.

Instead of binge-watching cable TV, Boccaccio’s protagonists entertain each other by telling 100 stories of love, shame and religious hypocrisy.

For art lovers curious about historical responses to plagues and pandemics, the Cleveland Museum of Art has plenty to offer online.

A search of the permanent collection produces dozens of images of death as the great leveler, of saints to whom the afflicted prayed for a cure, and of the plagues visited upon Egypt before the exodus of the Jews.

Heather Lemonedes Brown, the museum’s deputy director and chief curator, takes solace in the artistic testimony from the past because it offers proof that civilization endures and life goes on.

“Knowing that humanity persists is comforting on some level,’’ she said.

The museum, which is still considering how and when it will reopen, isn’t planning a pandemic exhibition, Brown said.

But last week she discussed several works in the collection that deal with themes related to coronavirus, which are included here, along with additional selections.

What follows is a thematic virtual tour of selected artworks which remind us that previous generations have experienced — and withstood — pandemics.

The Dance of Death

The artist Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-98 – 1543), known for stunning portraits in oils of subjects including England’s Henry VIII, designed a series of prints in the mid-1520s dealing with the classic medieval theme, “Dance of Death,’’ inspired by outbreaks of the plague.

Holbein designed 41 variations, of which the Cleveland museum has 38. One depicts Death as a raging peasant attacking a wealthy count who runs for his life, flinging useless armor and weapons to the ground.

The series “reminds us that no one from the top of the heap to a nameless child is safe from death,” Brown said. “Death becomes the great leveler, letting no one escape.’’

In 1850, the German artist Alfred Rethel (1816-1859), created his own variation on the theme in a woodcut depicting “Death as a Strangler,” fiddling in the midst of an 1832 Parisian costume ball during a cholera outbreak that eventually killed 20,000 across the city.

Death appears in the Rethel in the tattered robes of a monk, playing a fiddle made of human bones as partygoers collapse on the dance floor and musicians bolt for the exits.

Parenthetically, it’s easy to see how the Holbein and the Rethel are part of a visual tradition that includes Ingmar Bergman’s classic 1957 film, “The Seventh Seal,’’ relating the tale of a medieval knight who challenges Death to a game of chess during an outbreak of plague as he seeks redemption while still alive.

Variations on Saint Sebastian

The museum holds multiple depictions of Saint Sebastian, a 3rd century Roman soldier who converted to Christianity and was sentenced to death by Emperor Diocletian. When soldiers couldn’t kill Sebastian with arrows, they clubbed him to death.

Miracles associated with Sebastian include the conversion of a Roman prefect who was cured of a plague when he renounced the worship of idols at Sebastian’s insistence.

For that reason, cities and villages across Europe adopted Sebastian as a “plague saint,” to whom they prayed for help during outbreaks.

The museum’s images of Sebastian include a delicate and elegant 1493 drawing by the Italian artist Perugino, exhibited last year in the exhibition “Michelangelo: Mind of the Master.”

“It’s such a sensitive and beautiful little drawing,” Brown said.

In contrast to the Perugino, the 17th-century Spanish artist Jusepe de Ribera used red chalk on paper in 1626-30 to delineate the saint painfully tied by one arm to a tree as he flinches in anticipation of the first arrow he’s about to receive.

Another powerful work associated with Saint Sebastian is a 1484 German monstrance, a gilded silver and rock crystal reliquary believed to contain a sliver of bone from the saint’s body. It’s shaped like a slice of a Gothic cathedral with flying buttresses and a towering cupola holding a crystalline cylinder with its precious contents inside.

St. Catherine of Siena

In addition to Saint Sebastian, Renaissance Italians prayed to St. Catherine of Siena for relief from the plague. The daughter of a wealthy cloth dyer, she had a vision of Christ at age 6, and thereafter dedicated herself to chastity, penance and good works, according to the museum. She became known in Siena for caring for victims of the Black Death.

St. Catherine is the subject of a 1460 altarpiece panel by Sienese artist Giovanni di Paolo, who shows her kneeling as she receives the habit of St. Dominic.

Visons from India, Japan

In 12th century Japan, Buddhists seeking protection from disease addressed prayers to the “Medicine Master Buddha (Yakushi Nyorai)." Seated on a lotus blossom, the Buddha heals all maladies, including ignorance. He holds his right hand upward in a mudra, or gesture, that means “have no fear.”

From 1830 to 1880, street artists gathered around Kalighat Temple in Kolkata, India, to purvey bright, colorful paintings on paper that functioned as political broadsides, gossip sheets or religious tracts. Examples at the museum, which held a memorable Kalighat exhibition in 2011, include a two-sided painting of Sheetala, the smallpox goddess, who has the power to cure or curse devotees.

Out of Egypt

The museum holds numerous depictions of the plagues visited on Egypt prior to the exodus of the Jews to the Promised Land.

Among the most striking is an etching and mezzotint print by British artist J.M.W. Turner, modeled after his 1800 painting “The Fifth Plague of Egypt,’’ now owned by the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Both the etching and the painting are mistitled. Turner’s image, which shows storm clouds and lightning shrouding Egyptian pyramids, actually depicts the Seventh Plague, caused when Moses stretched his arms toward the heavens causing fire, thunder and hail to descend on the pharaoh and his minions.


Cleveland artist Scott Miller, who died in 2008 at age 52, was known for a flowing style inspired by cartoons and graffiti. “Untitled,’’ painted in 1986, depicts a male figure with his arms folded protectively across his chest as he hovers amid overflowing viscera. The museum says the painting refers to Miller’s “identity as a gay man living through the deadliest years of the AIDS pandemic.’’

In 2019 the museum acquired a 1987 work created by contemporary American artist Jenny Holzer as a response to HIV/AIDS, which has killed 32 million since the early 1980s according to the World Health Organization.

Entitled “Laments: Death came and he looked like…” the work consists of a vertically oriented L.E.D. sign flashing with a word crawl, and a marble sarcophagus etched with the same text, written by the artist.

For Brown, the Holzer refers to mass media and fine art, evoking both modern technology and ancient burial practices.

With contrasting vertical and horizontal elements that stand up lie down, the work also appears to evoke “the living and the dead, both at the same time, and the new and the old,” Brown said.

Somber and bluntly assertive, the Holzer is a thoroughly contemporary response to plagues that have been part of human experience for millennia.

It’s also a reminder of how current events can endow great works of art throughout the museum’s collection with a sudden, sharp relevance.


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