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A 14th-Century Vision of the Black Death

What separates us when we're dead?

Gilles Le Muisit (1272-1353), Black Death at Tournai, oil on canvas, 1349. (Source)

Throughout human history, it has been a skill of ours to be able to embody our struggles through art. Images cross the lines that languages have laid and extended a hand to those otherwise shunned from the inner circles of academia and the social upper class. Visit any common garden variety gallery and within their collection you are almost guaranteed to find images of war, famine, suffering, and most importantly, illness.

Unlike the prior topics, of which most can be personified to an extent, the topic of illness is one that lurks in the shadows as humanity has struggled to understand it, to contain it and to depict it in all its wretched might.

In Gilles Le Muisit’s Black Death at Tournai (1349), he shows a scene of business as various workers carry as many coffins as possible to be buried. The faces of those involved are all solemn and silent as they carry out their duty. In a way, the canvas, when read from left to right, tells an allegorical tale. On the far left-hand side, we see multiple figures carrying coffins, with the four figures to the front taking on the traditional stance of pallbearers as they escort one coffin between them, whilst the men in the background carry the coffins in a much less dignified manner. Reports throughout history during times of war and disease often note that funerary rites were often abandoned as death tolls rose. If you were a member of the common class who died of the plague, you were simply a number to be dealt with, although even if you were higher class and afforded the privilege of a semi-traditional burial, it was still no less of a rush to get you in the ground.

Perhaps the most pitiful figure in the image is that of the gravedigger in the lower centre of the piece. Although the stylistic choices of the artist (in line with styles of the period) may not have left much room for emotion, the facial expression of the man literally waist-deep in a grave tells the audience all they need to know about the situation. Finally, when we look to the ‘end’ of the painting in the right-hand side, we see the final truth of the matter. Although the coffins are coming from different places and contain different people, and though some may be carted in by the dozens while others are carefully and respectfully carried with all the rites and rituals traditionally required, they are destined to the same end - in the ground. In the same place, side by side.

An allegorical tale of the futility of worldly injustices brought to light through the tragedy of the ‘ultimate pandemic’. Although when we think of the black plague we tend to conjure up images similar to this one, it is important to note that instances of Versinia Pestis (the bacterium which causes the disease) repeatedly reared its head throughout Europe all the way up until the 17th century.

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