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An eerily familiar letter from F. Scott Fitzgerald has been making the rounds on social media and WhatsApp in recent days, purportedly written from the south of France during the post-war Spanish flu – you've probably glanced at it already. The letter, in which the author of The Great Gatsby writes of empty streets and bars, and a sceptical Ernest Hemingway, was a parody written for the humour site McSweeney's but it seized the public imagination, including mine.

Dance of Death: The Pedlar

Dance of Death: The Pedlar

1651, etching by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607–1677) after Hans Holbein the Younger (c.1497–1543) and Abraham van Diepenbeeck (1596–1675) (border)

In the face of the coronavirus outbreak, taking the long view could be a way to conquer fear, to reduce our own troubles by finding our place in history.

'At times of great crisis it is natural to look to the past for precedents,' the historian Tom Holland wrote in The Sunday Times, in an article noting reassuringly that past plagues were much, much worse. The article was illustrated by an etching of the physician Hippocrates trying to save people in the plague of Athens, that arrived in 430 BC, after devastating Persia and Egypt.

Art history helps us too. In that spirit, a quick survey of Art UK shows us that seventeenth-century physicians understood the importance of protecting themselves from contagion.

The beak-like nose on this early hazard suit, shown in this picture from Wellcome Collection, would have been fitted with aromatic substances. 

The childhood song Ring-a-ring o' roses is widely said to be a song of the plague, where we have a pocketful of posies before we sneeze A-tishoo! and all fall down. In fact, according to folklore scholars, this is a flimsy interpretation that only emerged in the late twentieth century.

Ring o' Roses

Ring o' Roses 1993

J.Keith Donnelly

King Street / East Marketgait, City of Dundee, Dundee

In 2012, The Guardian's art critic Jonathan Jones observed how for 300 years, from the Black Death in 1347 to the London plague that Daniel Defoe observed in 1665, plague was part of life, while artists kept making phenomenal work.

It seemed 'the entire story of the Renaissance and Baroque periods in art is sealed inside the kingdom of the plague' with the art of these centuries abounded in images of death. Artists such as Hans Holbein the younger and Titian were probably working in this manner.

The occasion for the piece was an exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, 'Van Dyck in Sicily: Painting and the Plague, 1624-1625', in a gallery now closed along with all the others. No better time, then, to go hunting online.

Already, meanwhile, artists are responding: Peter Brookes, The Times' wonderful political artist, refashioned Herbert Mason's iconic photograph of the Blitz, of St Paul's in swirling smoke, by filling the clouds with coronavirus.

Blitz Spirit

Blitz Spirit

2020, pen, ink & watercolour by Peter Brookes (b.1943)

The works on Art UK that turn up on a simple search include this c.1400 work of Saint Anthony Abbot, with Sant Francis, in the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery.

Saints Francis and Anthony Abbot

Saints Francis and Anthony Abbot c.1400

Bicci di Lorenzo (1373–1452) (attributed to)

Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives

The plague connection is not obvious until one learns from the National Inventory for Continental European paintings that Saint Anthony was considered the founder of monasticism and credited with miraculous powers of healing. The attribution to the Florentine artist Bicci di Lorenzo is 'tentative' and as a caution, there are several Saint Anthonys, including Saint Anthony the Great, who is also appealed to against infectious diseases, notably shingles.

Saint Sebastian

Saint Sebastian about 1623

Gerrit van Honthorst (c.1590–1592–1656)

The National Gallery, London

Renaissance images of Saint Sebastian, riddled with arrows in the moment of martyrdom, feature in The Ashmolean and The National Gallery – he was also considered a protection against the plague. Sebastian is said to have served as a Roman soldier in third-century Italy; a Roman prefect whom he converted was supposedly cured of the plague after renouncing pagan beliefs. But it was in the medieval period that healing powers were widely attributed to him.

Saint Roch

Saint Roch c.1730–1735

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696–1770)

The Courtauld Gallery

The thirteenth-century Saint Roch (or Rocco), whose death is still commemorated in Italy, is especially invoked against the plague. He attended plague victims in public hospitals in Italy according to traditional accounts of his life. Images attributed to the Spanish historical painter Nicolás Borrás in the Royal Cornwall Museum, or other works in institutions from The National Gallery to the Wallace Collection, show him baring his thigh to show the mark of the plague.

Saint Roch

Saint Roch

Nicolás Borrás (1530–1610)

Royal Institution of Cornwall

Like Saint Sebastian, Saint Roch's healing powers came to the fore in images of Christian martyrs and saints that flourished after epidemics, particularly the Black Death, and the later Italian plague epidemic of 1477–1479. In the aftermath of the Black Death, the artistic motif of memento mori – the grim Latin reminder of our mortality – also flourished in European artistic traditions.

Saint Roch is also the patron saint of dogs, after one carried food to him in the prison where he died.

Jumping forward in time, the Wellcome Collection, with its medical focus naturally holds other related works including two watercolours by the artist E. Schwartz, date unknown, showing plague-preventing rat-catching in India. 

The Wellcome Collection includes other images that are far more disturbing, like the nineteenth-century chalk and wash work of a terrified man just finding he has contracted the plague.

The genre of the 'Dance of Death', also known as 'Danse Macabre' in French or 'Totentanz' in German, also flourished in the wake of the plague.

The Dance of Death

The Dance of Death

German School

Wellcome Collection

One particular rendering, painted under the arches of Lucerne's famous Spreuerbrücke (literally 'chaff bridge'), by Kaspar Meglinger in the seventeenth century, is gruesomely vivid.

One of the Totentanz panels under the Spreuer Bridge in Lucerne

One of the Totentanz panels under the Spreuer Bridge in Lucerne

1616–1637, artists under the direction of Kaspar Meglinger

The bridge was originally built in 1408. Meglinger's paintings show the figures of death dining and dancing inescapably with all sections of society; no one can keep him out. The 'Totentanz', completed between 1625 and 1635, 'bears impressive witness to a subject matter that was much in vogue in the Middle Ages'.

Artists respond in different ways to times of crisis; out in the world, as war artists on the front lines, say, or by retreating to studios and their own internal visions.

If a prayer went up for Saint Roch now, it would be that this twenty-first-century epidemic could end much sooner than those in the past.

While we wait for governments and medical professionals to combat this illness, coronavirus could leave a written, digital historical record on a scale unlike any before, as people pour their feelings, thoughts, and daily lives on to WhatsApp groups, Twitter, or Facebook.

Shared comic videos or photographs represent one artistic response, but there will surely be work in more traditional, less temporary forms, that institutions will be showing in exhibitions centuries from now.

Tim Cornwell, freelance arts writer