Updated: Aug 25, 2020
What pandemics looked like before Instagram.
Josse Lieferinxe, St Sebastian pleading for the life of a gravedigger afflicted with plague during the 7th-century Plague of Justinian (St. Sebastian betet für die Pestopfer), oil on canvas, 81.8 x 55.4 cm, 1497-1499, Walters Art Museum, US. (Source)
Justinian’s plague was an early (perhaps the very first) large scale outbreak of what we colloquially know nowadays as ‘The Black Plague’. Having previously ravaged smaller parts of the empire, the plague presumably made its way to the heart of Constantinople through the various trade routes through the city.
The historian Procopius first reported the epidemic in 541 AD, and the plague was believed to have mostly stopped ravaging the city by 542 AD, although there were reports of the plague popping up around the empire all the way until 750 AD.
An estimated 25-100 million people died of this plague, and the impact on the empire of Justinian I was catastrophic. The socio-economic hardships endured during and long after the plague ravaged the people of Constantinople and left the Empire with a lack of labour.
Understandably, there is a distinct lack of art from the time of the Justinian plague. Although we should account for the loss of various artworks through the traditional ravages of time, as well as general wear and tear. We should probably consider that the people of Constantinople at this time were slightly preoccupied and not exactly rushing to their sketchbooks.
There is, however, a small collection of artworks depicting the Justinian Plague slightly further forward in the history of art. For this fun foray into the pleasures of the pandemic, we shall be looking at the work of Josse Lieferinxe, specifically his depiction of Saint Sebastian pleading with Jesus for the life of a gravedigger afflicted by the Plague of Justinian (1497-1499).
In this fantastically macabre depiction of the plague, we can see a distinct line between the matters of earth and of heaven. On earth, we have a collection of priests overseeing what appears to be a mass burial of plague victims whilst their loved ones writhe in grief. One priest in the rear of the image looks down upon the shrouded corpse of a victim and recoils, clutching his processional cross. Perhaps he has noticed the wicked irony in the fact that they’re wearing the same outfit!
Whilst the priests say their prayers over the dead, two men appear to be arranging the bodies for burial. We cannot see exactly where the bodies are being buried but judging by the two already on the ground, the one being brought up the stairs, and the two further being carted in through the gates in the background, it is probably safe to assume there is some type of mass grave just out of sight.
In contrast, in the distance of the painting, we can see the castles and towers of the city rising above the dead, perhaps a comment on how distanced the elite are from the suffering of the lower classes of the city? Although, even above the ivory towers we can see the heavenly battle between an angel and what appears to be a demon wielding a battle axe. If you look carefully, you can see in between the angel and the demon two figures trying to carry another shrouded body, perhaps this is intended to show the battle for the victims' soul.
Even further above the scene, we see God and Saint Sebastian. Saint Sebastian is accepted as the patron saint of the plague-stricken, so it makes sense that he has a stake in the issue (no pun intended). St. Sebastian appears to be pleading with God about the situation below. We know by the title of the piece that he is praying for the safety of the gravediggers at work. We’re not exactly sure how this conversation is going (oh, if only paintings could talk), but judging by the state of things on earth one can assume that it’s definitely an interesting one.