Artists focus on hope and healing in a time of disaster

Who could have guessed that an exhibition of paintings connected to the bubonic plague would prove so relevant - and ultimately inspiring - to museumgoers today?

Certainly no one at the Worcester (Mass.) Art Museum, which is hosting the exhibition "Hope and Healing: Painting in Italy in a Time of Plague 1500-1800," could have predicted the events of the past few weeks. Hurricanes and other disasters have often been called "acts of God," and the plague was seen in its time as God's wrath vented upon unrepentant sinners.

This exhibition brings together 37 paintings in the Baroque style by such masters as Van Dyck, Canaletto, and Tintoretto, who were active in Italy during the plague years. Some of the works would have been made for churches, for use as altarpieces, while others were commissioned for private homes. Thirty-one diverse museums - most of them American - lent paintings, which range from small studies to large compositions.

The plague, also known as the Black Death, tramped through most of Europe during those three centuries. Italy, because of its position as a trading center where travelers from many regions gathered, was particularly vulnerable. Italians were either coping with a current plague or awaiting the next one, the exhibition explains. Roman Catholic Church leaders saw the disease as both a scourge and a catalyst: If citizens believed that God was punishing them, then they would seek spiritual remedy. The artists portray a primal yearning for relief from physical ills, coupled with a hope of spiritual solace and resurrection.

The paintings in this exhibition directly address sickness, but most of them are devotional in nature, with the artist directing the viewer's gaze toward heaven and salvation. Some paintings depict acts of mercy.

Most of the paintings would strike modern viewers as tame. Grisly images are few, and gore is nonexistent. Even the dead and dying are presented with the requisite decorum: partially nude bodies are arranged in tableaux and draped in the classical style.

The paintings don't shrink from human suffering, however, because suffering was salutary in the minds of church leaders, who commissioned many of these works. Images of saints bringing healing to the masses was considered good for the church.

A common form of prayer in those times was to seek divine aid through the intercession of a saint. One of the most popular of these was the archangel Michael, a powerful symbol of victory over the plague. Legend has it that after a church procession through the streets of Rome, Michael's image was seen atop Hadrian's Tomb sheathing his sword, marking the end of that plague. The city built a fortress there, renaming it the Castel Sant' Angelo (Castle of the Holy Angel).

The importance of the angel Michael in plague lore is seen most vividly in a spectacular painting by Giovanni Andrea Sirani, which adorns the exhibition's posters and promotional materials: "Saint Michael the Archangel Overcoming Satan," painted in the late 1630s. The delicate features of the fair-haired angel contrast powerfully with his battle gear and the firm foot he places on the devil's bowed head. No person seeing the original altarpiece in the Roman church of S. Maria della Concezione could have failed to be inspired by such a warlike and yet gentle angel.

The Virgin Mary was seen as the key intercessor on behalf of plague sufferers.

At first glance, "Entrance to the Grand Canal," by Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canal) is simply a lovely canal scene in Venice. But as museumgoers look more closely, they see that it pictures S. Maria della Salute, a church that was commissioned by Venice's city fathers in 1630 and built as a supplication that Mary intercede and save the city from the plague. It's a symbol of hope.

Centuries later, as human beings face hurricanes and other adversity, they still struggle with an apparent paradox - how to reconcile the concept of a benevolent Creator with the destructive forces they encounter.

The paintings in "Hope and Healing" reveal a desire to transcend the pestilence that threatened to destroy everything. What viewers carry away is awe that such paintings survive as testament to the power of faith. The inspiration woven into these artworks spoke to viewers in that time, and it's a voice that still resonates today.

'Hope and Healing: Painting in Italy in a Time of Plague, 1500-1800,' continues at the Worcester Art Museum through Sept. 25.

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