Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Doctor treating a plague victim
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  • Description:

    The image above is part of a series of murals about the life of Saint Sebastian that were painted in a chapel located in Lanslevillard, a remote alpine village in southeastern France. The mural was likely painted between 1450 and 1480 and depicts a physician lancing a bubo on the neck of a woman suffering from the bubonic plague. The young man standing behind the woman assists the physician by holding the patient still. Meanwhile, the other two patients, possibly the woman’s husband and child, lift their arms up, preparing themselves for the same treatment. An even younger child lies in a cradle with a pale complexion, perhaps asleep or possibly also ill. Floating above the scene, a demon and angel converse, the demon aiming an arrow towards the humans to inflict further death and disease. The angel flies with arms wide open, one finger pointing towards the people, and the other outstretched toward the demon. As the thirteenth-century Golden Legend explains in its life of St Sebastian: “When the good angel gave the command, the bad one struck and killed, and when he struck a house, all the people in it were carried out dead.”

    Sebastian was a popular saint during the Black Death, serving as a protector and source of comfort especially during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Although his life story had nothing directly to do with plague or sickness, those who were devoted to Sebastian’s cult associated the arrows with the sudden attack of the plague. They also admired him for his Christ-like traits, in particular, his ability to die and come back to life. According to the story, Sebastian was pierced by hundreds of arrows for refusing to renounce his faith, and was left for dead. The Christians who came to retrieve him, however, found him miraculously alive. Despite pleas from friends to leave Rome, Sebastian sought out his attackers and confronted them for their actions against Christians. At this second encounter, however, Sebastian was beaten to death, his body thrown in a sewer to prevent a proper burial. In spite of their actions, Sebastian was “revived” in a dream to a Christian woman. He informed her of his body’s whereabouts so that he could be buried with dignity.

    The ancient symbolism of the arrow representing death and disease contributed to making Sebastian, along with Roch, the saint to call upon during the Black Death. If the arrows were symbolically understood as the bubonic plague, Sebastian’s lasting faith despite his suffering provided a model for Christians dealing with sickness. His double resurrection provided hope for those who were ill, hope for recovery and hope for salvation. By the time that this mural was created, multiple waves of the Black Death had passed through and ravaged communities. In a similar way, Sebastian was persecuted and tortured not once, but twice. Despite his repeated suffering, he remained steadfast in his loyalty to God. Christians living in fear of plague would have admired Sebastian’s bravery and loyalty to his community, and would have prayed for the same miracle of life to be granted to them. As a Christ-like figure, Sebastian suffers for mankind, taking on the arrows of plague that were meant to punish humanity for their sins. He serves as a protector and redeemer.

    The narrative painting cycle of Saint Sebastian’s life in Lanslevillard is one of seventeen in the region of Savoy that remain from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It stands out for its reliance on the account from the Golden Legend by Jacob of Voragine. Figures hold banderoles that present key phrases from their spoken dialogs in the book. The captions below the paintings provide further comment on the lessons to be learned from this narrative. Leandri-Morin notes that the painting cycle emphasizes the efficacy of Sebastian’s image and models a devotional attitude requiring attention to the details of the saint’s life and a patient reliance on faith. The cycle devoted to Sebastian appears in seventeen scenes on the south wall of the chapel while the rest of that wall and the other three walls depict scenes from the life of Christ.

    A saint such as Sebastian was a necessary source of comfort and refuge during a time where medical knowledge about the Black Death was minimal. The majority of physicians at the time believed that the plague was caused by poisoned air. They believed that poisoned air caused fevers by attacking the heart and lungs. However, such a theory did not explain the recognizable “buboes”, swollen and inflamed lymph nodes that often appeared around the armpit or groin. A controversy ensued in which some doctors fell into the “pestilential fever” (poisoned air) group, while others sided with the “aposteme group” (buboes). Guy de Chauliac, a university-trained physician and surgeon, noted that he himself fell ill and recovered following the draining of a bubo. According to him, the Black Death “was so contagious (especially that which involved spitting of blood) that one man caught it from another not just when living nearby but simply by looking at him; so much so that people died without servants and were buried without priests. Father would not visit son, nor son, father; charity was dead, and hope prostrate.” Guy continues in his account to discuss how the disease began in the East and spread across the world, noting its unprecedented geographic range and lethality. He says, “physicians felt useless and ashamed.” People blamed the Jews, the poor, and the nobles. Twenty Jews were killed in Barcelona, eighteen in Cervera, and three hundred in Tàrrega. Beyond the social unrest, infrastructure such as irrigation systems in Egypt fell apart as populations shrank like never before.

    Modern research on the Black Death has illuminated a pathogen called Yersinia pestis, which is identified as the pathogen that caused one of the most deadly pandemics in human history. Modern microbiology has allowed for the analysis of ancient DNA found in the remains of various plague burials. Although some skeptics challenge the evidence, researching the evolutionary history of this pestilent organism has yielded reliable data and, at the same time, made clear the current Eurocentric understanding of the Black Death. If Y. pestis is in fact the organism that caused the Black Death, that means that its origins actually lie in the Tibetan-Qinghai Plateau. The time frame used to mark the first wave of the Black Death, 1347 - 1353, must be changed, for that period only accounts for the time when the disease attacked the Mediterranean and Western Europe. Finally, if Y. pestis is the disease-causing organism, that means that the Black Death could happen again. The current strain of Y. pestis is not so different from the fourteenth century samples. In 1994, Surat, India, a bubonic plague caused by a type of Y. pestis infected the city, causing mass panic. Muslims in Surat were blamed, and rumors spread that they were poisoning the city’s water system. Even Indian officials placed blame on a local Islamic group for the epidemic.

    Though scientific and technological advancements have greatly increased our knowledge about disease, the social reactions to plague feel uncomfortably familiar, especially in the age of COVID-19. Amidst the current global pandemic, reading and learning about the Black Death highlights some uncanny and uncomfortable patterns regarding human response to disease. While social unrest is likely an inevitable part of living in an uncertain age, it is disheartening to see that minority groups are blamed and targeted, repeatedly, for biological threats out of their control. However, perhaps some comfort can be found in the realization that a pandemic has struck humanity before. In the 14th century, despite the fact that there was very little understanding of immune responses and infectious diseases, humankind survived.

  • Source: Paul Smit and Mick Palarczyk
  • Rights: Rights to reproduce the thumbnail were purchased from Paul Smit for use in Feminae. Copying the thumbnail violates the photographer's copyright.
  • Subject (See Also): Black Death Children Diseases Physicians Sebastian, Martyr Medicine
  • Geographic Area: France
  • Century: 15
  • Date: 1450- 1480
  • Related Work: South wall with scenes from the life of St Sebastian and six scenes from the life of Christ, Lanselevillard, chapel dedicated to Saint Sebastian.
    North wall with scenes from the life of Christ, Lanselevillard, chapel dedicated to Saint Sebastian.
    West wall with scenes from the life of Christ (including the Circumcision in the upper row and the Flagellation beneath it), Lanselevillard, chapel dedicated to Saint Sebastian. See the image beneath the Life of Saint Sebastian.
    East wall with scenes from the life of Christ and representations of Saints Fabian and Sebastian, Lanselevillard, chapel dedicated to Saint Sebastian.
    Giovanni di Paolo, Saints Fabian and Sebastian, about 1475, Italian, National Gallery, London. Fabian, a third-century pope, was also thought to offer protection from the plague. The two saints were often represented together.
  • Current Location: Lanselevillard, Savoie, France, chapel dedicated to Saint Sebastian
  • Original Location: Lanselevillard, Savoie, France, chapel dedicated to Saint Sebastian
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital images; Paintings
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Paints; Murals;
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  • Height/Width/Length(cm): //
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  • Related Resources:

    Aberth, John. The Black Death: A New History of the Great Mortality in Europe, 1347-1500. Oxford University Press, 2020.

    Boeckl, Christine m. Images of Plague and Pestilence: Iconography and Iconology. Truman State University Press, 2000.

    Ciavaldini-Rivière, Laurence. "L'iconographie des Juifs en Savoie au XVe siècle. A propos de l'Apocalypse des ducs de Savoie et de la Passion de Lanslevillard." Actes des Journées du CDPI (2004): 59-84.

    Crespo, Fabian and Matthew B. Lawrenz. "Heterogeneous Immunological Landscapes and Medieval Plague: An Invitation to a New Dialogue between Historians and Immunologists." Medieval Globe 1 (2014): 229-257. Available open access. The issue is devoted to the theme, Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death.

    Godde, Kanya, Valerie Pasillas and America Sanchez. "Survival Analysis of the Black Death: Social Inequality of Women and the Perils of Life and Death in Medieval London." American Journal of Physical Anthropology 173, 1 (2020): 168-178.

    Guy de Chauliac. “On the Black Death.” Medieval Medicine: A Reader, edited by Faith Wallis. University of Toronto Press, 2010. Pages 419-421.

    Leandri-Morin, Marie-Pierre. "Représentations provençales et piémontaises de la vie de saint Sébastien : procédés narratifs et sources textuelles." Mélanges de l'école française de Rome 109, 2 (1997): 569-601. Available open access.