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Images of Plague and Pestilence: Iconography and Iconology. .

Christine M. Boeckl. Images of Plague and Pestilence: Iconography and Iconology. (Sixteenth-Century Essays and Studies, 53.) Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2000. xiv + 210 pp. index. illus. bibl. $30. ISBN: 0-943549-85-X.

Without doubt, there is a growing audience for the study of visual representations of plagues and pestilence in western art. Already these complex pictures have regained the attention of art historians, and other scholars as well. In addition, a more timely topic for general readership is difficult to imagine, given current awareness of anthrax threats and smallpox epidemics, not to mention the intractable pestilence of AIDS that encircles the globe. Images of the sick, the dying, and the dead have become part of routine visual experience, and apocalyptic visions, fueled by the turn of the second millennium, abound in literature and art. Like the medievalist Michael Camille, some scholars of the visual arts have identified belief systems in the imagery that illuminate specific historical moments.

Christine Boeckl intends to provide "an overview of various sources of plague iconography," to investigate the iconography of selected paintings and to emphasize the "most important innovative artistic works" of the Renaissance and Catholic Reformation (2). Her specific theme is the bubonic plague, arriving in Europe in 1347 but remaining a threat until 1890. The preface credits the pioneering work of the French art historian Emile Male in the area of plague iconography and iconology, then cites subsequent scholarship by physicians and medical historians. The author acknowledges (although does not reference here) recent articles and dissertations on "plague art," and publishes a passage by the late French historian, Jacqueline Brossollet, which situates the author's own work in the scholarly literature. The introduction establishes the book's chronological framework, and its three-fold objectives, stated above. The text is divided into eight chapters: "Medical Aspects of Bubonic Plague and Yersinia pestis Inf ections," "Literary Sources of Plague Iconography," "Visual Sources of Plague Iconography," "The Black Death and Its Immediate Aftermath (1347-1500)," "The Sixteenth-Century Renaissance (1500-1600)," "The Tridentine World: Plague Paintings as Implementations of Catholic Reforms (1600-1775)," "Revival of Plague Themes and Modern Reverberations (1776-1990s)," and "Plague Imagery, Past and Future." An appendix of "Plague Texts That Influenced Visual Art" follows.

Positive contributions include placing the art of northern and southern Europe in dialogue and extending that contact to the New World. Throughout, the author is correct in emphasizing theological underpinnings of depictions, equating the diseased body with heresy and the plague with divine retribution. Nonetheless a cursory reading of the table of contents signals a problematic agenda. Chapter titles suggest either a survey or a reference tool, while thematic subheadings promise sustained analysis. In a project at once limited and vast, some weaknesses could have been addressed by a vigilant editor, such as frequent cross-referencing to other chapters and repetitive footnotes. But, if ultimately this book disappoints, it has less to do with its particular flaws than with the sense of a missed opportunity. The bibliography, for example, gives short shrift to the stimulating work on the bubonic plague that has emerged since the early 1970s as part of a new discourse relating medical history to social instituti ons and practices. Historians have investigated plague images, while art historians have looked beyond issues of style and iconography. In 1981, van Os proposed a corrective to Meiss' influential study on Tuscan painting surrounding the Black Death, redirecting attention away from changes in style to artistic production. (Van Os' article in Art History is not cited, because the author refers the reader to the bibliography in her own article on the Camposanto fresco instead.) Boeckl herself attempts to move beyond iconography at each stage of her analysis, forging links between plague images and their historical context in her iconological interpretations. Yet she repeatedly falls into the trap of oversimplification -- as in her summaries of sixteenth-century humanism, Post-Tridentine ritual or French Romanticism -- and she adheres to art historical assumptions that tend to interfere with the interpretation of images -- as in her description of Vasari's mannerist tendencies. One wonders if a radically differen t approach would have produced a more nuanced investigation of plague imagery. This rich subject might have been better explored in case studies of the core works and a wide-ranging conclusion.
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Author:Howe, Eunice D.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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