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Artists focus on hope and healing in a time of disaster

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Who could have guessed that an exhibition of paintings connected to the bubonic plague would prove so relevant - and ultimately inspiring - to museumgoers today?

Certainly no one at the Worcester (Mass.) Art Museum, which is hosting the exhibition "Hope and Healing: Painting in Italy in a Time of Plague 1500-1800," could have predicted the events of the past few weeks. Hurricanes and other disasters have often been called "acts of God," and the plague was seen in its time as God's wrath vented upon unrepentant sinners.

This exhibition brings together 37 paintings in the Baroque style by such masters as Van Dyck, Canaletto, and Tintoretto, who were active in Italy during the plague years. Some of the works would have been made for churches, for use as altarpieces, while others were commissioned for private homes. Thirty-one diverse museums - most of them American - lent paintings, which range from small studies to large compositions.

The plague, also known as the Black Death, tramped through most of Europe during those three centuries. Italy, because of its position as a trading center where travelers from many regions gathered, was particularly vulnerable. Italians were either coping with a current plague or awaiting the next one, the exhibition explains. Roman Catholic Church leaders saw the disease as both a scourge and a catalyst: If citizens believed that God was punishing them, then they would seek spiritual remedy. The artists portray a primal yearning for relief from physical ills, coupled with a hope of spiritual solace and resurrection.

The paintings in this exhibition directly address sickness, but most of them are devotional in nature, with the artist directing the viewer's gaze toward heaven and salvation. Some paintings depict acts of mercy.

Most of the paintings would strike modern viewers as tame. Grisly images are few, and gore is nonexistent. Even the dead and dying are presented with the requisite decorum: partially nude bodies are arranged in tableaux and draped in the classical style.

The paintings don't shrink from human suffering, however, because suffering was salutary in the minds of church leaders, who commissioned many of these works. Images of saints bringing healing to the masses was considered good for the church.


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