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Covid-19 & Its Predecessors: Pandemics, Plagues, Pestilence, & Peste in Art

From the Libraries: Books/eBooks & More

Images of Plague book cover
piety and plague book cover

From the Web: Images & More

About the guide

Purpose: The aim of this guide on plagues in art is to present in one place selected resources available both from Boston University Libraries and on the Web to encourage and expedite further academic inquiry and research on the general topic and on specific subtopics.  With the Covid-19 pandemic currently raging in the U.S. and around the world, the Web is flooded with images of plagues that have devastated huge populations throughout history; Google facilitates their discovery.  To help students and scholars learn more about plague images, this guide highlights books, articles, databases, and background sources that lead to understanding and reflection from a variety of perspectives—art historical, social, thematic, religious, stylistic, geographical, even medical. 

Selected Images. The main section of the guide, Selected Images, is arranged chronologically by pandemic or epidemic outbreak.  Examples of images and selected relevant articles and videos are provided as springboards to further investigation.  For the most part, the selected artworks were created by artists living and working in the West, mainly in European countries, from the Byzantine period on. Beginning in the early 1800’s, photographers recorded events related to epidemics, such as the influenza of 1918/1919. Many 20th- and 21st-century artists express their feelings on the effects of epidemics, such as HIV/AIDS and Covid-19, in street and  public art as well as in traditional art forms. Click images for enlargements and sources.

Texts: A section of the guide, Texts, provides a selection of plague descriptions from Biblical and classical antiquity to the 18th century C.E.  Several writers were eyewitnesses to the death and despair the epidemics brought on people and entire cities. Their accounts are still referenced in modern pandemic research: Thucydides, a plague survivor, wrote a description of the plague in Athens in 430 B.C.E. that continues to influence and inform art, literature, history, political science, and medicine.