The original painting sold before it was ever shown publicly. The wood panel prints sold out quicker than any other image. It has been an instant favorite among my patrons and yet, I would have never imagined that it would garnish such popularity. Which painting gets to wear this crown? The Plague Doctor! And I’d imagine that he’d prefer his customary top hat and beak mask to the crown.
This painting has been surprisingly popular among folks of all ages. The original was purchased before it’s debut at the solo exhibition in Wichita, Kansas a few years back and afterwards, the image was tucked neatly away in the files. Recently, after noticing some unexpected interest in The Plague Doctor, we decided to release it as a panel print and see how it fared. Well, its popularity was palpable and we sold out of all 33 limited edition panel prints in record time.
So why all the popularity? Well, The Plague Doctor’s iconic uniform has an eye-catching look and a great story to back it up.
By “The Plague”, I am referring to the bubonic plague that ravaged much of Eurasia in the 14th-17th centuries. It peaked in Europe from 1347-1351 and is estimated to have killed 30-60% of Europeans during its 300-year rule.
The bubonic plague is thought to have originated in the dry plains of central Asia, expanding west via the Silk Road and merchant ships. As this mysterious illness spread like wildfire through the medieval towns and cities of Europe, the local governments were left without enough medical staff to treat victims.
Enter the plague doctors, who were hired by local governments to fill the gaps. These were not well-trained physicians; rather, they were often second-rate doctors unable to run their own practice or young physicians seeking to establish themselves. They rarely cured their patients and served more of an administrative role in counting the victims for demographic purposes.
Most people recognize the iconic top hat and beak mask associated with plague doctors. The reason they wore this odd outfit lies in the medical understanding of the day. The leading researchers thought that diseases were spread through foul-smelling air. Thus, they wore protective suits of various kinds to guard against exposure to the “bad air” and the disease.
In the 17th century, towards the end of the bubonic plague’s reign of terror, a French doctor named Charles de Lorme invented the beaklike mask that we now associate with the plague doctor as an added protection from the foul air. His design allowed the wearer to stuff the mask with dried herbs and flowers, which would help filter out the odor and protect them from catching the plague, or so it was thought. His design caught on quickly among plague doctors and it carried through the next few centuries as various plagues ran their courses throughout Europe.
As you may very well know, I always put a detail or two in my Jobs of Yesteryear paintings that show why this particular job became a thing of the past. Can you find it in the Plague Doctor? The answer lies in looking back at why the bubonic plague finally ended. Historians believe that two main factors helped to eradicate the bubonic plague in medieval Europe: 1) burning the bodies of the victims rather than burying them, which killed the bacteria responsible for the illness and, 2) the effective use of quarantining to separate the sick from the healthy. The flag flying on the ship in the background of the painting is the quarantine flag flown by ships with sick sailors while the pile of burning bodies can be seen on the other side.
Dark, right? Which is way my wifeboss and I had never thought that releasing The Plague Doctor as a panel print made much sense. We thought there would be a few fellow weirdos out there who found it interesting and it would be off-putting for most. But boy were we off the mark. Most of you are weird and that’s oddly comforting. Thanks for being strange like us and here’s to flying your flag this Halloween season!