Epidemics: images, metaphors, allegories

Dossier “Epidemics: Perspectives from Cultural Studies”

© CC-BY-SA-4.0; Basel, Kunstmuseum (gemeinfrei); Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; cdc; Belvedere Wien, Inv. 4048

For as long as serious infectious diseases have been observed and described, there has been the issue of how to represent them in various media. Since the lack of appropriate aids meant that they or their pathogens can or could elude sensory perception (see the dossier “Visibility”), people relied on other strategies of representation. One such strategy was to turn the symptoms of infections into an object, for example by depicting people with plague buboes or by constructing a metonymic term such as the ‘Black Death’, which alluded to the clinical appearance of the person infected. More generally, a conceptual basis could be provided by the phenomenon of a dramatic mortality (gran morìa/“Great Death”).

Another strategy could be to use symbolic or allegorical modes of representation. The wave metaphor is repeatedly used for Covid-19, and the metaphor of the forest fire has also been proposed recently. Older are images such as the Grim Reaper and arrows, as well as metaphors such as the “whip of God”, the “morbus gallicus” (‘French disease’ as a term for syphilis), and the “promiscuous plague” (also a term for syphilis or, more recently, for AIDS). Such symbols and terms have not only depicted diseases, but also often offered starting-points for linking the diseases to other discourses, to actual or perceived threats, and to concepts of social demarcation (‘othering’). Moreover, epidemics and infectious diseases can in turn become a metaphor or image for other phenomena.

The contributions in this dossier shed light on some facets of the issue outlined here, ranging as usual from ancient history, to the history of art and literature, and to non-European anthropology.

© Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Under the yellow cholera flag: Gabriel Garciá Márquez, Love in the time of cholera. By literary scholar Martina Wagner-Egelhaaf

This is a strange story told by Gabriel García Márquez in his novel Love in the time of cholera (Span. El amor en los tiempos del cólera, published in 1985): Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza fall in love at a young age. Fermina’s father, however, is against the relationship and takes his daughter on a journey to visit distant relatives and to make her forget Ariza. More

© cdc

The worst of all plagues. By historian Katharina Wolff

What is the very worst thing about an epidemic? The dead? The survivors? The ubiquitous fear? The uncertainty about how things will turn out? If we wanted to intensify all this in order to achieve the maximum of terror in a fictional adaptation of the theme, what would this look like ultimately? More

© Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

“Angel of the Lord” and “Donna spauenteuole”: Depictions of the plague in early modern art. By art historian Jens Niebaum

The engraving shown here, which Aegidius Sadeler probably made around 1580-1600 after a model by the Antwerp painter Maerten de Vos as part of a cycle of scenes from the Old Testament published by his uncle Johann, presents in condensed form an episode from the 2nd Book of Samuel (24: 15-25) and the 1st Book of the Chronicles (21:14-27) that deals with a plague at the time of David. More