Pain Through Painting: How Pandemics Have Shaped Art

by Ollie Wells, Staff Contributor


Throughout history, people have responded to outbreaks of disease in many creative forms. Whether it be prose, poetry or fine-art, they allow for myriad moving depictions of human suffering that many of us can relate to during the coronavirus outbreak.


One of the most famous and touching stories from the plague outbreak of the 1660s is that of Rowland Torre and Emmott Sydall. The two young lovers were separated when the village of Eyam, in Derbyshire, England, quarantined itself to stop the spread of the plague to the neighbouring towns. The exquisite stained glass window of St Lawrence’s Parish Church in Eyam clearly shows the yearning Emmott and Torre felt for each other, now that Emmott was left stuck inside the village boundaries, seemingly light years away from her loved one in the neighbouring village.



The outstretched arms of the lovers and the river symbolising the separation of the two is a poignant reminder of the struggle of the population in the village, who is famed for the founding of quarantine to stop the spread of the plague to the rest of Derbyshire. Every day, Emmott and Rowland would wait for each other on either side of the craglet separating the two villages just to be in the presence of each other, more than two metres apart. The experience these two young people endured is strongly reminiscent of the longing many of us feel to be closer to our loved ones during the coronavirus, showing us how we have learnt from past hardships and, though it is difficult, are taking the right actions to protect people.


The street art above, by the artist Pony Wave, is a contemporary piece that demonstrates emotively the separation people are suffering during the coronavirus. Placed in an eye catching spot on the shorefront of Venice Beach, California, it represents what could be seen as a modern version of the stained glass window depicting the lovers in Eyam. In this painting, the look in the woman’s eyes is a longing for a closer connection to the man she is kissing, the monochrome colours used to depict the two individuals reflecting upon the sadness they are feeling at their distance. The vibrant colours used on the masks, however, are a clever gesture towards how the distance the two are experiencing is going to lead to brighter times in the future. The flowers, well known in art to symbolise life, are also an important illustration of how though the two individuals may be suffering at present, it is for a greater cause. The message this beautiful piece of street art seems to give is extremely similar to the stained glass window addressed earlier, showing a clear trend of how pandemics affect art and the feelings portrayed through it.



Finally, it’s interesting to compare depictions of how outbreaks of disease were shown to affect people in ancient times, when there were fewer medical developments, to now. This painting illustrates the ancient Greek historian, Thucydides, first-hand account of the 430BC Plague of Athens. Though the painting was produced in 1652 by Michael Sweerts, it draws upon many experiences recorded by Thucydides to portray the atmosphere of panic and despair. Michael Sweerts’ illustrations in this painting of people desperately praying, like the figure in purple on the far right, and those who are clearly tired and despondent, such as the woman on the far left, show how helpless the population of Athens felt at the hands of the disease. Though we are in a better place scientifically than the ancient Athenians were, the feelings of powerlessness when faced with a global pandemic is still very present in current society and, because of that, the tragedy shown in this truly emotive oil on canvas painting is made even bleaker.

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