Pandemic visibility – pandemics and the invisible becoming visible

ByMatthias Sandberg

Late-19th-century research on infection succeeded in making the invisible visible for the first time: the microscopic examination and microphotographic representation of bacteria and viruses gave the invisible threat a concrete form. The more or less exact depiction of the SARS-CoV-2 pathogen is also omnipresent in the media today, its eponymous oval form with its typical spikes having come to symbolize the corona pandemic worldwide.

Josse Lieferinxe (1483-1508), St. Sebastian interceding for the plague-stricken, oil on canvas 81.8 x 55.4 cm, 1497-1499.
© The Walters Art Museum (CC0 1.0)

But before modern biology made the invisible visible, it was the symptoms (from the Greek term ‘σύμπτωμα’, formed from the prefix συν- (together) and the verb πίπτειν (to fall), i.e. that which falls together), the perceptible manifestations of infection in humans, and how their environment reacted to it, that indicated the presence of a disease in its literature and media representation – that made the disease visible. This is also reflected in the literary strategies used to visualize epidemics: the Athenian historian Thucydides (before 454 BC, probably between 399 BC and 396 BC) wanted his meticulous description of symptoms of the Plague of Athens to be understood as an answer to the otherwise invisible threat: at the beginning of what was then for ancient historiography an archetypal account of the plague in 430/426 BC, he writes:

And so everyone, doctor or layperson, should express an opinion on this epidemic, where it probably originated from and which causes are deemed powerful enough to trigger such a radical change; I want to describe the course of the epidemic and the symptoms that, when examined, can best be prevented by foreknowledge, should it occur again. I will describe the symptoms – I, who myself have experienced the disease and have seen others suffer (Thucydides II, 48,3; my translation).

Besides the fact that these words fit remarkably well with how we are currently dealing with the corona pandemic, where daily political debates are promoted by doctors and ‘laypersons’ alike, Thucydides reflects not only on the physical signs of infection, but also on the changes and reactions of his environment that point to the invisible epidemic: it is the special signs and reactions of the natural environment, such as the absence of cadaverous feeding among animals, that serve to make the disease visible:

Birds and four-footed animals that go to corpses either stayed away from the many unburied dead or perished after a few bites. There was a noticeable dwindling of such birds, and no more were seen, either anywhere else or near the dead bodies (Thucydides II, 50, 1-2; my translation).

However, the serious progression of the pandemic also manifested itself in clear fractures in civilization and in the collapse of adherence to social systems of norms, values and rules; our sources also reflect this. Thus, Thucydides also reports on ἀνομία, the fundamental disruption of social interaction and its rules that shaped his polis during the epidemic, and even more so in the middle of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC): temples and sanctuaries were neglected; religion and law, since petitions and pleas were in vain, had lost their function of order; and people were shaped by fear, hopelessness, and self-abandonment. The anomic state of his polis was particularly evident in its irreverent treatment of the dead and its disregard for burial customs, with death taking place

under chaotic circumstances: corpses lay on top of each other and on those dying, and half-dead people rolled around in their greed for water in the streets and around all sources of running water. And the holy districts in which they camped were full of corpses, because there too people were dying; for, in the face of the overwhelming force of the catastrophe, indifference towards the commandment, both divine and human, took hold of those who no longer knew how to do anything. And all the rules concerning burials that had been observed in the past were swept away in the general confusion, and everyone buried as best as they could. In doing so, many proceeded in a completely irreverent manner for want of all that was necessary, for so many had already died before them: on the pyres of other people they would lay their own dead and light fires, if they managed to get ahead of those who had piled up the pyre; others would simply throw the dead body they were carrying on top of it, while another body was already burning, and go away (Thucydides II, 52, 2-4; my translation).

The failure to bury the dead in accordance with traditional customs, which was particularly the case in densely populated urban areas when the pandemic took a turn for the worse, has always been part of the typical vocabulary of the literary visualization of epidemics: drawing on the Thucydidean model, the late-antique historian Procopius (c. 500-560 AD) depicted the Justinian Plague, which first appeared in the 540s, in a very similar way. As a pandemic occurring in waves throughout the Mediterranean region with countless victims, it was the most serious pandemic of the ancient world. In the course of his description of the plague, he attends to the raging of the epidemic in the urban context of Constantinople almost exclusively by pointing to the failure of proper burial practices. Indeed, this even has its own chapter:

At first everyone took care of the burial of those who had died in their own homes, although the bodies were also thrown into other people’s graves, either secretly or by force. Later everything became mixed up; ... And so it happened that, in the general plight, many a nobleman remained unburied for many days. ... Those who were not yet completely isolated in their own homes buried their relatives themselves. ... When all previous burial sites were overcrowded with corpses, all the places around the city were dug up one after the other, and the dead were placed there as best as they could be, and things were left at that. Meanwhile, the men engaged in such a task were soon outnumbered by those dying. So they climbed up the towers of the city wall in Sykai, covered the roofs, threw the corpses in there as they came in, and piled them up randomly. After filling almost all the towers with the dead, they put the roofs back on top of them. As a result, a foul odour penetrated the city and oppressed the inhabitants all the more when the wind blew from that direction. At that time, burials were held without all the traditional ceremonies. The dead received neither the usual accompaniment nor the usual funeral song; it had to suffice to carry a corpse on the shoulders to the city’s waterfront and throw it where the dead were loaded onto barges and shipped off somewhere in heaps (Procopius Pers. II, 23; my translation).

When the plague finally reached Constantinople, the countless dead could not be properly buried, but were literally piled up because, for example, they had to be stacked in the defensive walls of the metropolis; public supplication, Procopius continued, gave way – even in the liturgically charged environment of Constantinople – to isolation; even the enormous administrative apparatus of the Eastern Roman Empire had to capitulate to the number of victims.

The painting above by Josse Lieferinxe († before 1508) also reminds us of the effects of the Justinian Plague throughout the Mediterranean world. The commissioned work, which the painter produced between 1497 and 1499 as an altarpiece for the now destroyed Notre-Dame-des-Accoules in Marseilles, refers to one of the waves of the Justinian Plague or its rages in Pavia in Lombardy in the 7th century.

A closer look at the painting reveals two narrative levels, one earthly and one extra-worldly or heavenly: almost as if on an assembly line, a row of corpses stretches from the centre of the painting from the otherwise empty city centre to the extra-mural chapel; the dead have to be transported on wagons – the funeral procession does not seem to stop. In the foreground, just at the moment when the clerics present are beginning the funeral mass, a grave helper, overcome by the plague (this is shown by the bubo on his neck), falls to the ground; lamentations and sorrow can be seen in the faces of the laypersons and church representatives standing by.

The ‘earthly’ narrative strand culminates at the very bottom of the painting in the depiction of the barely recognizable and only half-buried corpse; the tools of the grave helpers are still hastily scattered on the ground: Lieferinxe’s pictorial depiction also culminates in the narrative of the observance of Christian burial commandments, which in view of the countless plague victims can no longer be performed. In the upper third of the painting, on the other hand, a different story unfolds: while a (plague) demon fights with an angel, St. Sebastian, who can be recognized beyond doubt by the arrows, kneels before God and intercedes for the city threatened by the plague, which threatens to destroy the city’s order in the flood of corpses.

The literary and artistic visualization of epidemics is naturally oriented towards the particularly serious consequences of the disease, which in the pre-modern era included above all the ‘breach of civilization’ regarding burial norms. But this does not mean that the ancient world is so far from the present: we may well have an idea of what the SARS-CoV-2 pathogen looks like at the molecular level and can recognize it (at least in theory) as the cause of the pandemic. But when a convoy of trucks from the Italian military was needed in Bergamo to transport the many coffins; when whole church rooms were filled with coffins; when pictures reached us from New York, where body bags hat to be stored in refrigerated containers in front of hospitals – it then became clear how urgently the visibility of epidemics still manifests itself today in the form of an urgent need to deal with the dead. More than the ‘symbolic image’ of the jagged sphere of the corona virus, such images have made the presence of the pandemic visible and perceptible.