Diseases have remained a constant threat in all of human history, with the Black Death approaching a pandemic scale from 1347 to 1353 after centuries of sporadic outbreaks. Implicated as early as the Plague of Justinian from 541 to 549, plague still exists a diminished threat in the present. Rodents in Colorado are known to carry the disease, but modern doctors can treat it in ways that were unknown at the time.
Coronaviruses like COVID-19 differ substantially from plague in terms of biology. Archaeologists examining the remains of people deposited in mass graves during the Black Death proved Yersinia pestis responsible–a bacterium also referred to as Bacillus that is transmissible between rodents and humans through fleas, manifesting in the afflicted with three different forms: bubonic, septicemic, and pneumonic. Plague took the lives of all three Limbourg brothers, who worked by hand to craft some of the most influential books ever made, as well as their patron, the Duke of Berry, who commissioned Les Très RIches Heures. Left unfinished at the time of their deaths,historians believe it may have been completed around the year 1450 by Barthélemy van Eyck, likely a relative of Jan van Eyck. During subsequent outbreaks, artists translated the horrors of their experiences. Recurring motifs like the Triumph of Death reveal the extent to which mortality as an idea pervaded the social consciousness.
Giovanni Boccaccio wrote his collection of allegories The Decameron while the Black Death swept over Florence from 1352 to 1353. The Decameron centers around a series of stories told by each of the narrators to pass time in isolation from the outbreak. As with the 2020 pandemic, art and literature have always provided a refuge from the real horrors outside the binding of a book or the edges of a frame. Pre-Raphaelite follower John William Waterhouse finished this work in the months before his death, not long before the first known cases of influenza painted a dramatically different picture of modern society.
Disease remained a fascination throughout modern art leading up to the 1918 pandemic. Likely inspired by the tales of Boccaccio, Edgar Allan Poe wrote the haunting story ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ to capture the essence of Gothic ideas about mortality. In his work from 1842, the characters close themselves off in a castle to avoid an epidemic while the spectre of smallpox lurks inside—eventually killing them all by the end. Within a few years after writing this tale, his wife Virginia died from tuberculosis. Poe himself met an untimely and mysterious end not long after—possibly the target of a political assassination like Camus.