Death and Persecution in the Early Renaissance

Much of the art that came out of the Early Renaissance reflected the threat of the Black Death. Increasingly, art began to show human emotion rather than flat iconography. This article is a short synopsis of three scholarly writings on the topic. Read more to learn about these themes in Renaissance art.

Millard Meiss: “Painting in Florence and Siena After the Black Death”

The most important vehicle for political participation of the middle class were the guilds. The true source of citizenship was a membership in a guild, with many various kinds for artists. At the beginning of the Trecento, the style changes manifested by Giotto, Cavallini, Duccio, and the Lorenzetti brothers, to name a few, led to the increasing importance of representations of human sympathy and narrative emotion besides just flat forward-facing icons. Also the Black Death influenced the style. For example, Giotto’s Arena Chapel fresco Lamentation showing expressive human emotion and an increase in showing Jesus as human; from the prevalence of Christus patiens to Simone Martini showing Jesus’ parents admonishing a young Jesus in Christ Discovered.

Then in early 1340s, the nobles of Florence lost wars which led to financial crises all over and death and persecution. In Siena the series of revolutions during this time were slightly more radical. This was because the increased power of the lower middle class began earlier and lasted longer than in the corresponding power shift in Florence. At the beginning of the 1340s, a crop failure and the financial collapse led to a grain shortage. Before they were able to recover, the bubonic plague, called the Black Death, hit in 1348, leading to death and persecution.

The loss of life was catastrophic: between ⅓ and ½ of the whole population of Europe died during the plague. The death and persecution was somewhat more devastating for the poorer classes. However many oligarchs and influential painters, like Bernardo Daddi and the Lorenzetti brothers, died also. Meiss argues this loss of life gave the surviving artists the opportunity and freedom to develop their own new styles.

The Aftermath of the Black Death

In the aftermath of the plague, looting abounded, upsetting the previous class structure with copious nouveaux riches. This was because people were scarce but the bounty and wealth of the earlier prosperous periods was still around. Yet also the death and persecution led to a loss of labor available to bring in the crops and livestock. This meant the end of the plague did not lead to a return to prosperity. Other more familiar threats still remained, like threat of mercenary armies from Milan or marauding bands invading Florence and Siena.

All of these factors, including the Black Death, led to increased immigration rates in Siena and especially Florence. Meiss argues that the style of the nouveaux riches may be that of the early Trecento century, or, the style that was still widely presented in many public areas. Meiss also argues that because most of the records of artistic opinion ar by the rich or educated elite, there is little to no way to know the public’s reaction to the stylistic changes occurring. The few instances we are left with are decidedly negative, for example, the destruction of Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Lysippus.

Though this may have been the attitude of the newly rich, they didn’t influence the art directly; many of the prominent commissioners were the seven major guilds in Florence, still dominated by established merchants. The guilt of prominent banker families like Bardi and Peruzzi peaked during this time. When after multiple crises and death seen as punishments, they remained in their lowered status. For all of the condemnations from the contemporaries, we should remember that the immoral practices of these banker families led to some of the greatest art projects during this time period and arguably in all of Europe.

Security from Art

Meiss argues that all classes of people desired more intensely religious and iconic art. Also for less of the humanistic styles of just before the plague. As a response to the multitude of threats, security of familiar iconography can led a sense of power to a deeply troubled people and time filled with death.

Barbara Tuchman: “A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century”

The bubonic plague, or Black Death, in Europe around 1347 to 1350 killed approximately 20 million people. This was ⅓ of Europe. The Black Death famously came from rats on ships, or more accurately the combination of infected fleas on infected rats. Therefore, the sickness hit cities with ports first. As the plague followed earthquakes, major bankruptcies, and crop failures, many people felt that the whole world was ending.

During the plague, confusion, apathy, and hostility rose. While the science behind the plague was unknown, they could tell that physical connection led to infection. This caused many people to vehemently push others away. The sickness, death and persecution hit the poor most often. This was through many factors, including the ability of the rich to flee to a secluded place, and the close unsanitary quarters of the cities. Similarly with wealth, mortality varied with rank. Workers refused to reap crops, tend to livestock, clean streets. The loss of labor heavily contributed to the idea of the loss of the future.

Because there was no obvious source of the sickness, people believed in supernatural causes. Usually they were either astrology or more popularly, the divine. While the Christians turned to God for salvation from the Black Death, they did not hesitate to deny any to their Jewish neighbors. Anti-Semitism had been persistent through the Middle Ages, leading to death and persecution. However the inflated charges of well-poisoning caused the horrific murder of many Jewish communities. As wards of the Christian state, the Jewish communities did not have any recourse in many cases except to flee.

The Lives of the Survivors – After the Black Death

In the years and decades after the plague, regular life kicked back in, changed in the details only. Widespread dissatisfaction with the Church caused factions to split within and without. Many priests refused to visit the sick to grant last rights during the plague. This caused the overrun of cathedrals and monasteries. In some places, wages rose extremely. Everyone, it seemed, felt depressed and hostile because of the Black Death.

The huge loss of life led to the more wealth per person. However, the local councils, kings, and the pope still held the old societal rules. However, once the fixed order changed once, it would be easier for it to change again, perhaps not so suddenly in the future. Tuchman argues this witness to change created the “beginning of modern man”.

Barbara Katz: “The Contours of Tolerance: Jews and the Corpus Domini Altarpiece in Urbino”

Joos van Ghent painted the main altarpiece of the Confraternity of the Corpus Domini. Paolo Uccello painted the predella. The predella, painted in 1468, after the Black Death, depicts the desecration of the host by Jewish people and their subsequent burning at the stake. In this article, Katz presents the back-handedness of tolerance in Urbino under the rule of Duke Federigo da Montefeltro.

The presence of Jewish people in city-states like Urbino was beneficial to the larger society. This was because they were required to be. The Christian sin of usury prohibited gaining profits from giving loans, but authorities allowed and encouraged Jewish businesses to do the same. Katz argues that Jewish people were beneficial to Montefeltro’s city-state economy. Katz argues that the predella shows violence to Jews who are committing sins against Christians and tolerance to others. This is because they have a limited participation in the community, one that is unified as Christian.

However, contrary to the official policy of tolerance, there was an increase of anti-Semitism during this time. This was led by the sermons of Franciscans and monti di pieta, the smaller interest loans that would not count as usury but would undercut the Jewish businesses. This adds to the visual of the evil Jewish moneylender that is presented in the predella around the same time. That the authorities allowed the monti, Katz argues, shows the flexibility of the “tolerance” of the Montefeltro government.

Using Art to Warn, not as History

The legend of the profaned host is depicted in the predella. Katz argues that because the Jewish man in the predella is specifically a lender shows the locality of the story, because the origins of the legend of the profaned host in Paris do not identify the Jewish man as a moneylender. Katz points out that this is unusual for a place where there are no documents occurrences of this happening. Clearly the artist portrayed a warning, not a real event.

Anti-Semitism and Death in Art

The generalization of the Jewish family as “other” belies a larger pattern in Italian art and society in this time period and during the Black Deat. The artist portrayed everyone non-Christain as strange outsiders, from Aristotle to Ottomans to Jews living in Tuscany for centuries.

Uccello painted the predella, but that is based off of observations and analysis rather than documents. The flat cartoon-like figures and the extensive perspective use are characteristics of Uccello’s work that are prominent in the predella. This leads people to accept Uccello as the painter of the predella.

The predella has themes of blasphemy and redemption. Two scenes are dedicated to the redemption of the Christian woman who had sold the host to the Jewish man in the first place. She is saved from her punishment by an angel, and given her last rights by two angels. Katz argues that this leads to the idea of Christian unity within the community, and that the exclusion of Jewish people from redemption should extend to exclusion from society. This altarpiece is highly political, and Katz argues that Federigo uses it as a advertisement for civic harmony for the Christian people of Urbino.

David A. Smith at Dave4Math

David Smith (Dave) has a B.S. and M.S. in Mathematics and has enjoyed teaching precalculus, calculus, linear algebra, and number theory at both the junior college and university levels for over 20 years. David is the founder and CEO of Dave4Math.

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