It’s clear that we’re living in unprecedented times. 2020 has already been a year to remember, and we’re not even a quarter of the way into it yet. The novel coronavirus outbreak has rapidly changed how we live our lives on a daily basis, from the encouragement of social distancing, to the economic impact of the disease. While it may be anyone’s guess the long-term effects that COVID-19 will have on society as we know it, evidence backed by history suggests that there’s still a light at the end of the tunnel. And as the number of COVID-19 cases continue to increase by the day, many artists across the world are finding themselves locked indoors until the coast is clear. From musicians to painters, designers, and filmmakers alike, all mediums could use this period of isolation to their advantage.

Throughout history, more specifically the 1300s – the seventeenth century, mankind was oppressed by plague. The Justinian Plague, The Black Death, Smallpox, The Great Plague of London, and Cholera all shared one thing in common besides being a disruption to society. These epidemics each proved the shocking resilience of human beings, and our power to overcome self-pity. While the coronavirus pandemic may, or may not establish itself as a ripple in human history, the power of the internet and our constant pursuit of self-actualization could be the formula leading to a modern renaissance.

Drawn in 1349, this is one of the earliest known images of the plague. A time during the Black Death, it shows people carrying coffins of those who died of the illness in Tournai, a city in what is now Belgium.

European art initially rose to glory in an age that was ravaged by disease and death. In 1347, the Bubonic Plague was brought by a Genoese ship to Sicily. In just a few years, nearly a third of Europe’s entire population was killed. Over the next 300 years, pestilence had all of Europe firmly in its grip. During this period of darkness, art survived as a means for Europeans to communicate their pain with one another, as well as to future generations. Michelangelo and Rembrandt lived their entire lives in the shadow of death, creating their greatest works through the fear that mortal contagion could seize their cities at any moment. Others tried to fight plague through their art, such as Tintoretto, who painted his greatest works in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice, a building dedicated to a plague-protective saint.

Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice Italy. Home to the “St. Rich Healing the Plague-Stricken” painting by Tintoretto.

Leonardo da Vinci survived a series of bubonic plagues that struck Milan between 1484 and 1485. These outbreaks, which killed a third of the cities population, inspired the Renaissance polymath to design concepts for a future city that he illuminated through a series of drawings and notations between 1487 and 1490. At the heart of these concepts is da Vinci’s perspective on shifting the cityscapes of medieval cities like Milan – which were narrow, dirty, crowded and a prime conduit in the spread of disease. In turn, da Vinci leaned toward a more modern layout emphasizing cleanliness, aesthetics, and efficiency. Between architecture, science, music and engineering, da Vinci also painted his magnum opus through these troubled times, the Mona Lisa, in 1503.

While the art of the Renaissance centuries may be abound in images of death, it is also full of joy. Artists of the 1500s and 1600s created incredible treasures and beacons of civilization. Far from being driven to despair by pestilence, it was if they had been spurred to assert the glory of life. The depictions of these times are still engraved in our cultures across the world to this day. Artists like Caravaggio painted stories of the bible with brilliant realism, staging events of the sacred past as if they were taking place in present day. His influence on the course of western art has been immense and has not been limited to the field of painting alone. Caravaggio’s work shaped that of many later artists, including leading figures of cinema such as Pier Paolo Pasolini and Martin Scorsese with his dramatic sense of staging and innovative treatment of light and shade.

Depiction of “The Black Death” in Siena by Simone Martini, 1340.

Now in the 21st century, just two decades in, we’ve been presented with one massive economic crash, geopolitical quagmires and now a mysterious disease that is impacting every aspect of human life. While this may not be the optimal context heralding a new renaissance, the original wasn’t born in idyllic circumstances either. Rather, it was a rebirth of human culture. There’s a widespread feeling that we live in an era of more than usual change. And as artists, we each have the perilous fortune to have been born into a historic moment – a decisive moment – when events and choices in our own lifetime will dictate the circumstances of many, many lifetimes to come. Sure, it’s the conceit of each generation to think so but this time it’s true. In the short term, too, history is being made. It seems every day we wake up to a new shock. And shock itself is the most compelling evidence that this age is very, very different. Shock is our own personal proof of historic change – a psychic collision of reality and expectations – and it has been the relentless theme in all of our lives. The internet, effectively nonexistent 20 years ago has now linked half of humanity online. A tool that connects nearly 5 billion people to the things that they love the most. And, again, as artists it’s our duty to use this tool to create change. So, while we may be living in the Twilight Zone currently, keep singing your stories, keep painting your nightmares, keep sewing your hauntings, keep writing your heartbeats, and keep designing your freedom. Keep creating.

Drawn in 1502, Leonardo da Vinci’s early illustration of the town of Imola, Italy.