Black Death and centuries of artists reckoning with mortality

This third edition of "Art Following Epidemics" by Art Historian Andrea Kirsh provides a snapshot of important works on paper following the Black Death and the infiltration of death imagery in European art for more than two centuries following the plague.

Ink print of a couple walking arm in arm as a skeleton dances and plays a percussion instrument as they pass.
Hans Holbein “The Noblewoman “ from The Dance of Death” (ca. 1526, published 1538) woodcut , Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Black Death of the 14th Century changed the course of European history and cast a shadow for at least two centuries. When the beginning of paper making in Europe enabled the production of illustrated, printed books, those devoted to the Art of Dying and to the Apocalypse were best sellers. Numerous artists illustrated the subjects. Hans Holbein produced a series of 41 prints on the theme of the Dance of Death showing death approaching kings and clerics, old and young, peasants and as here, the wealthy. Death makes no distinction. His series went into eleven printings within 25 years and spawned perhaps 100 unauthorized versions and copies during the Sixteenth Century.

The most dramatic image to come out of this concern for last things is surely Albrecht Durer‘s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” created when the artist was twenty-seven. As described by A.Hyatt Mayor in “Prints and People”: “The first woodcuts initialed by a great artist, their fame made his AD the first artist’s signature to be extensively faked. For us, his four horsemen exhaust a theme in the way Raphael exhausted the theme of the Madonna and Degas the ballet dancer.”

For more on “Art Following Edidemics,” check out “Art exploited as propaganda after outbreak of bubonic plague in Jaffa in 1799” and “Il Redentore, a post-plague church in Venice

Drawing of four men riding horses and bearing weapons, trampling over humans while an angel flies above them in the sky.
Albrecht Durer “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (ca. 1498) Metropolitan Museum of Art