Tag Archives: Plague Doctor

Introduction – Herbert J. Mattie

I am an independent art historian and exhibition curator in Leiden, the Netherlands. Since I curated an exhibition about epidemics through history in 2001, visual imagery of the plague has my special interest. Within this discipline, the depictions of masked plague doctors are a niche subject that, although marginal by itself, has close ties to many aspects of the plague.

Contrary to a widely held belief, most historians now assume that a plague doctor in a full-body suit that included facial covering, was at most a very exceptional phenomenon. There are no reliable written sources that support the existence of a beak-shaped mask.
This leaves us with art-historical questions about visual, cultural, and historical influences and backgrounds, that can be summarized as: how can we interpret the iconology of the plague doctor images from the 17th and 18th century?

Naturally, this topic cannot be discussed without also considering their relationship to historical reality; therefore, a substantial part of my research has moved in that direction. It is interesting to note that plague doctor images have become so ubiquitous that they tend to block our view on the medical PPE that has been used through the ages, and, in a broader sense, on conceptions about contagion and protective measures in the early modern period.

In 2022 I made a small pop-up exhibition in the context of the Leiden – European City of Science event, I hope to develop this further into a larger exhibition about plague imagery and PPE in general.
In the meantime I run a website about the same subject, under the title  ‘Doctor Schnabel’s Plague Museum’.
I recently published an article about the earliest sources that mention a plague suit in the Journal for the History of Medicine and Health.

Herbert J. Mattie

Art historian and artist in The Netherlands. Exhibition curator, imagery of the plague, crossroads of arts and sciences.

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