Illness as Metaphor in Sweerts' "Plague in an Ancient City"
|Michael Sweets, Plague in an Ancient City, about 1652–54
Sweerts, a peripatetic Flemish artist, painted Plague during his Rome sojourn, where he experienced the outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1648-50. He must have known Poussin's Plague at Ashdod (1630) and a lost Raphael painting, The Plague in Prygia, recorded in an engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi. The LACMA painting is of such high quality that it was attributed to Poussin until the 1930s. It's in much better condition than the abraded Poussin in the Louvre.
|Nicolas Poussin, Plague at Ashod, 1630. Louvre. Another version, also autograph, is in the National Gallery, London
|Marcantonio Raimondi, after Raphael, The Plague in Phrygia, after 1520
Sweerts remains a mysterious figure. No one knows why painted what he did. But Poussin wrote about Plague at Ashdod and even testified at the trial of a patron who used the painting in a money-laundering scheme. Poussin cities Aristotle's discussion of plague victims who murder ill family members to save themselves. Poussin's painting is a series of moral dilemmas in a society that is falling apart. It's possible Sweerts saw his subject similarly–but we really don't know.
Unlike the Poussin, the Sweerts painting is divided into a gloomy ruin on the left and a light-filled plaza on the right. Scholars have tried to connect this to paganism v. Christianity, or Pope Innocent X's then-raging feud with Cardinal Mazarin of France. In 1648 Pope condemned his political foes for "the plague of heresy."
LACMA bought Plague in an Ancient City in a big-money 1997 auction. It went for $3.85 million; remarkably, the underbidder was another institution, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. At the time some commenters remarked on its contemporary relevance to the AIDS epidemic.
Curator J. Patrice Marandel wrote that the Sweerts is "a painting that speaks very personally to us, a modern painting. It is a history of life and death, of hope and redemption, of triumph of light over darkness.… What may have attracted me to it was precisely the message of hope the painting delivers. Valid in 1650, that message is still valid today."
|Detail, Sweerts' Plague in an Ancient City