Plagues, while bringing devastation, have often spurred humanity to creative heights. Amidst fear, helplessness, and death, some people reach beyond their immediate plight to achieve something beautiful and lasting. Works of art produced amid pestilence offer insight into how human beings have struggled to bring out their best even while suffering the worst.
The ancient world responded to the capricious and arbitrary face of infectious disease—descending, decimating, and disappearing—with images of stability. The first temple to Asclepius, the god of healing, was constructed in Epidaurus in 430 BC in the wake of a plague that had claimed the life of Pericles. Designed by Theodotus, the temple was on par with the magnificent shrines to Zeus and Apollo. It elicited the admiration of observers such as Paulus Emilius in 167 BC and Pausanius in the second century AD, who marveled at the gold and ivory statue of the deity contained within it. This temple to healing was not only allied with beauty—seen as order and stability in antiquity—but also with interior comeliness. The inscription at the entrance read: “Pure must be he who enters the fragrant temple; purity means to think nothing but holy thoughts”—a direction to the ailing to look beyond the body for healing.
Rome adopted the cult to Asclepius during the great plague of 292 BC, building an extraordinary temple in the form of a ship on Tiber Island. More such temples would gradually fill the nascent empire thanks to the ubiquitous imperial troops. As the empire spread and Roman virtue declined, the ability to look upwards or inwards during times of epidemic disease diminished. When a pandemic broke out in AD 250, ravaging Carthage, Rome, and Alexandria, Pontius of Carthage lamented, “No one regarded anything besides his cruel gains. No one trembled at the remembrance of a similar event. No one did to another what he himself wished to experience.”