Arnold Böcklin - The Plague

by Alexandra Tuschka


Arnold Böcklin dared to create a personification of the cruel plague in 1898. In the painting, a large-scale and dragon-like monster rages through the picture. A rickety grim reaper sits on top of it; he swings his weapon around seemingly at random, spreading great mischief over the streets. The eyes are hollowed out, the corners of the mouth pulled down - neither compassion nor any other human emotion can be seen in the frozen face. One can literally feel how the monster flies into the picture space and towards the viewer, so dynamically is its flight depicted.

On the streets, dramatic defensive reactions of the shelter seekers mingle with already dead bodies. As if seized by an invisible force, a girl in a red dress falls to the ground. The "breath of plague" - an invisible, barely perceptible breeze is blowing. The narrow alley thus becomes an inescapable death sentence. The dramatic silhouettes of the doomed stand out against the bright horizon. The strongest contrast is seen in the bride in front, from whom all life has already escaped. Böcklin could not have depicted the transience of youth, beauty and young love more clearly. Another body has been superimposed on the corpse. If the Grim Reaper were to spare someone, one might want to confuse this gesture with a mourning. But the girl is just another victim.


A monster-like figure also appears in two other works by Böcklin: in the "Dragon in the Rock Gorge" the subjects are similarly powerless, and the "Cholera", a painting study from 1876, also shows a very similar, long-necked creature that enters the picture from above. It opens its mouth and brings death upon the three men lying on the ground.

The superiority of the disease, the inferiority of man against the invisible opponent - Böcklin will have been able to understand this quite personally: his first son died of cholera in 1854, and another of thypus in 1858. Ultimately, Böcklin shows here impressively the representation of the inevitability and cruelty of fate.


Arnold Böcklin - The Plague

Tempera on fir wood, 1898, 149.5 x 104.5 cm, Kunstmuseum in Basel