Plague in an Ancient City

Tracey J. Kinney

The Classical World as Viewed from the 17th Century

It is believed that the Flemish painter Michael Sweerts lived through an outbreak of the plague while residing in Rome in the 1640s. His subsequent painting, “Plague in an Ancient City”, can therefore be seen to represent both contemporary concerns and historical themes. Art historians disagree as to whether or not the painting depicts a specific outbreak of the plague in the classical world, since many of Sweerts’ works are allegorical in nature. It is likely that this work too is as much a reflection on social and cultural values, as it is an attempt to capture accurately a specific moment in time.



Depiction of plague-ridden dead bodies while people mourn for them
Figure 3.3 Michael Sweerts, Plague in an Ancient City, 1652. Oil on canvas. 46 3/4 × 67 1/4 in. (118.75 × 170.8 cm). Click anywhere on the image to open a larger version.

Questions for Consideration

  1. What does this painting tell us about the perception of plague during the 17th century? What of the perception of the ancient world?
  2. Does this painting concur with accounts of disease discussed earlier in this chapter, or does it challenge them?

Media Attributions


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The Ancient and Medieval World Copyright © by Tracey J. Kinney is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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