The Plague Doctor

plague doctor symbolism

I just spent a good half hour trying to find a particular image. It was a man and woman, one dressed in black, one white, stood in a field wearing the plague masks, but I failed….

It was a poppy (not a puppy) that caught my eye as I opened the curtains this morning, which then led to plague masks via correlations of death and the scent of flowers. And here we are….

I like all kinds of masks in art, but especially the dark ones such as these - gas masks are another, and whilst I’ve thought about the meaning of masks in general, I haven’t thought too much about why we might be drawn to specific types. Does the type of mask we are drawn to say something about our personality?

The original masks were made for those who were specifically hired to treat people who had the plague, but more often than not they were second rate doctors, and many had no medical training at all. The idea was the mask could be filled with attractive smelling herbs and flowers, and straw. Back then it was commonly believed the disease was caused by the bad smells.

The plague doctors were given special privileges (performing autopsies which were mostly forbidden), but not allowed to mix with others who were not infected. Another aspect of the job involved offering counsel to their patients on moral issues, (sin was seen to be another cause of the infection), although this could include hitting them with a stick if it was required.

So, as an archetype - could it indicate a person who is brave enough to expose themselves to the diseased, but may have less-than-honorable motivations, such as: money, status, desire to be seen as the hero, enjoyment of cutting up corpses, etc.? Having enough confidence to put themselves forward despite being ill-prepared or under qualified could certainly be seen as a positive attribute; the downside could be magical thinking that leads to the death of the self, as in a ‘psychological aspect’ rather than bodily. Recognizing the necessity of tough love but not necessarily knowing how to apply it at the right time. There’s something in here about social isolation too, but I can’t work out if it’s a lower than average need for interaction or a desperate need that means they’ll risk death just so long as they get it.

I don’t know, but I’m intrigued to dig a bit deeper because I like the masks…..

Addendum 19/12/15

Six months after writing this post and I’m in the middle of transferring from Blogger to WordPress(and then onto Nouw by the middle of January). A couple of days ago I finally came across the image I was searching for, and here it is ~ although I’ve been unable to locate the artist…if it’s your pic, then I’d love to hear from you! But then it coulda come from a film for all I know.

plague mask