Art of the Plague

Can disease lead to great art? It did during the plague of 1400 in ever active Florence where peoples’ fear and anxiety were relieved by a sculpture embodying their Christian faith that has been admired down the ages – far outlasting the disaster that gave rise to it.

The Black Death, or bubonic plague, of the mid 1300s devastated Florence, as it did the rest of Europe, killing half its population. Then in 1400, the plague struck again. Lacking today’s medical help, Florentines turned in desperation to their Christian faith. City fathers commissioned a vast sculpture to adorn the door of the Baptistery of San Giovanni, an esteemed structure where all the children of Florence were baptized.

Lorenzo Ghiberti, Porta del Paradiso, 1425-52

The ambitious project distracted attention from the disease as Florentines rallied behind it. Among them was a young goldsmith, Lorenzo Ghiberti, who had fled the city to avoid illness. Hearing of the competition for creating the sculpture, he rushed back and won over better known adversaries. Not that he had any doubts, as he explained: “By universal consent and without a single exception the glory was conceded to me.”

People came to the studio to watch the work in progress as Ghiberti and his helpers went through several painstaking steps of bronze casting. Bronze was preferable to marble but much more expensive and much harder to deal with. It was a matter of civic pride. Florence would thrive on the beauty it creates. Completed after twenty years, the door was considered one of the finest works of the budding Renaissance – 28 panels depicting the New Testament with figures that seem to emerge gravely and sedately from the Bible. The epidemic had not turned out as badly as had been thought, the sculpture much better.

Art continued when disease had disappeared. In view of his success Ghiberti was asked to sculpt another door of the Baptistery, and this he did untiringly for thirty more years. This time he depicted the Old Testament in ten bronze panels that were infused with the growing humanism of the Renaissance – graceful, flowing figures that seemed to invite observers into the religious gatherings. Another artist on the rise in Florence, Michelangelo called it the “gates of Paradise.”

Lorenzo Ghiberti, Porta del Paradiso, Adam and Eve panel, 1425-52

Sublime art does not accompany Covid 19. Satire prevails. Mona Lisa has a mask. A protesting woman says, “Stand back six feet and tell me you love me.” But Renaissance Florence shows that in a time of great turmoil and fear people can be lifted out of personal concern with a vision greater than themselves. Art conquers disease.

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