The personification of death goes back centuries, with Thanatos of ancient Greece and the pale horse rider of Revelation. Death as a skeletal grim reaper, however, was cemented as a symbol during the plagues in Europe, which stretched from the 14th to 18th centuries.
This year marks the 350th anniversary of the Great Plague (1665–66), the last major outbreak of the bubonic plague in London. To coincide with the anniversary, the Guildhall Library is hosting London’s Dreadful Visitation: The Great Plague, 1665, an exhibition that features printed plague material; some of it, like the “Bills of Mortality” that counted weekly deaths, reveal the period’s macabre imagery. Archaeologists have also been excavating a burial pit as part of a new London rail link project, discovering 30 victims who were all interred on the same day. Meanwhile, the Crossrail Project shared a 360-degree video view of the in-progress study of the believed 1665 Great Plague pit. There’s some evidence that rather than an abyss of naked bodies tossed together, limbs tangled in rot, coffins were in fact still being used — in other words, some respect was still being given to the dead despite the huge death toll. Over three centuries later, the impact and history of the Great Plague are still evolving.
In Representing the Plague in Early Modern England, Rebecca Totaro wrote:
In early modern England, death was a common visitor, coming in many shapes, but however horrifying and dehumanizing they were, leprosy, smallpox, and syphilis, famine, war, and murder in plague-time became lesser manifestations of death. […] No other disease altered physical, social, religious, medical, and civic behavior and beliefs at once, generation after generation, and sometimes decade after decade, year after year.
On broadsheets and illustrations, especially in media intended for the masses, the “Black Death” was often depicted as a wandering skeleton, sometimes wielding an arrow, shovel, or scythe. The vision of death or disease as an animated corpse predates the plague, yet the skeleton became a more popular visual around this time, representing the threat of an epidemic that seemed as though it could come from your friends, family, or neighbors. In the 19th century, the transmission of the plague would finally be connected with rat fleas; in 17th-century London, suspected infected people were quarantined behind closed doors, with red crosses painted on the wood. The plague mingled with the city, infecting rich and poor in a constant mortal dance. In The Black Death, Joseph Patrick Byrne writes that the “image of Death as an entity had a more standardized iconography in the West by the fourteenth century, and this evolved as the pestilence recurred. […] The massive presence of Death during outbreaks of pestilence made these messages immediate, however, and popularized the images.”
One of the earliest danse macabres was painted in the Cimetière des Saints-Innocents in Paris in 1425. Now destroyed, it showed skeletons joyfully cavorting with pope, doctor, duke, and citizen alike, and the theme caught on across Europe. London, like other cities in Europe, suffered several plagues before this “Great” one in 1665; by then, the image of death as a reaper, as a skeleton stalking the living, was secure. At the same time, many illustrations were moving towards a more realistic visualization of the horror, like an etching of two women lying dead in a street, a baby still feeding at one of their breasts. Yet the skeleton remained, continuing to ramble through our art and culture over the centuries. On a broadsheet from that era, a bony figure faces the wall around London, an hourglass and arrow raised triumphantly in its hands, a coffin at its feet. Above it are the words: “Lord, have mercy upon us.”