Ancient Greece

Painting a Pandemic: Michiel Sweerts’s “Plague in Ancient City” (1652) | Stephen Basdeo

Stephen Basdeo is a writer and historian based in Leeds, UK.

Michiel Sweerts, Plague in an Ancient City, 1652. Oil on canvas. Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Public Domain Reproduction Licensed under Wikimedia Commons)

Michiel Sweerts (1618–64) was a Flemish painter who specialised in genre paintings, portraits, and allegorical paintings. Sweerts spent the greater part of the 1640s in Rome, during which time there was an outbreak of plague in the city. Italy was, in fact, hit with frequent outbreaks of plague in the 1600s, with the more urbanized northern half of the country particularly badly hit.[i] It was probably the outbreak—along with having viewed, at some point, Poussin’s Plague in Ashdod—which inspired Sweerts to paint Plague in an Ancient City.

There are several haunting and thought-provoking images in the painting, such as the infant who struggles to nurse at its dead mother’s breast.[ii] The living adult figures in the foreground have a general state of confusion on their faces; the women have abandoned all propriety and many of the female figures are bare-breasted while the male figures’ clothes look shabby and torn.

[i] See Guido Alfani, ‘Plague in seventeenth-century Europe and the decline of Italy: an epidemiological hypothesis’, European Review of Economic History, 17: 4 (2013), 408–430

[ii] Franco Mormando, ‘Pestilence, Apostasy, and Heresy in Seventeenth-Century Rome: Deciphering Michael Sweerts’s Plague in an Ancient City’, in Piety and Plague: From Byzantium to the Baroque, ed. by Franco Mormando and Thomas Worcestor (Kirksville: Truman State University Press, 2007), pp. 237–304 (p. 239).

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