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Remembering Epidemics With Plague Columns

Military victories are much celebrated, but a victory against a common enemy, such as a disease, is as important, especially in older times when human population was routinely decimated by waves of killer epidemics. In such times, people desperately seeking for cures and respite from the sufferings offered prayers and votive offerings to the Gods. Those cities who could afford erected large churches, such as the Santa Maria della Salute in Venice, constructed after the Italian Plague of 1629–1631. Others erected “victory column”-like structures. The most famous of these is the Plague Column, or Pestsäule, in the city of Vienna, Austria.

Plague Column

The Plague Column in Vienna. Photo: AlexAnton/Shutterstock.com

Located on River Danube, Vienna was a major trading crossroads between the east and the west, and this exposed Vienna’s citizens to episodic plague outbreaks since the 14th century. Being a city of merchants, Vienna’s riverfront was crowded with warehouses holding items such as clothing, carpets, and grain for months at a time, and were heavily infested with rats. The city itself was densely built with no public sewers or drainage systems. Citizens tossed their wastes into the river, or dumped them on to the streets where they formed large stinking mounds of garbage and rubbish.

To be fair, living conditions were unsanitary throughout medieval Europe, which is one of the reasons why Europe was frequently visited by plague. The disease came knocking at the doors of Vienna, the imperial residence of the Austrian Habsburg rulers, in 1679. Like so many epidemics, the disease arose first in the poor and squalid areas and soon spread to the more wealthy population. As the number of infections increased, the Habsburg emperor Leopold I fled the city, but his retinue was not entirely immune to the disease.

At least 76,000 people died from the disease in Vienna, a fearful toll for a city with only 110,000 individuals. Corpses were carted to the outer edges of the city and burned in large open pits. Volunteers were sought out to do the gruesome job, but fewer and fewer people came forward for fear of catching the disease. Eventually, prisons were opened and prisoners incarcerated for life were forced to the cruel task. Even physicians and wound healers became scarce and sometimes were forcibly taken to the hospitals with their hands bound, so they could not escape.

Plague Column

The Plague Column in Vienna. Photo: Mitzo/Shutterstock.com

When the epidemic finally went away, the city authorities vowed to erect a Plague Column dedicated to the Holy Trinity. That same year, a wooden column was inaugurated, showing the Holy Trinity on a Corinthian column together with nine sculpted angels. This was replaced by a stone column in 1687.

Plague columns were a common feature in many Austrian cities and towns during the last half of the 17th century. The columns were usually erected in wood during the time of the plague and was used for religious flagellation. If a wooden column proved to be successful, it was replaced by a permanent monument, usually consecrated to the Trinity or the Virgin Mary. These plague columns became popular artistic forms, and many were designed by the Italian Ludovico Burnacini and the Austrian architect and sculptor, Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach. The sculptures at the base of Vienna’s Plague Column was designed by Fischer. Burnacini contributed the angel sculptures below the Holy Trinity as well as the kneeling emperor Leopold, praying to a sculpture of faith.

Other European cities also erected their own plague columns. There is one in Košice, Slovakia, commemorating the end of the 1709–19 plague, and another one in Kutná Hora, in Czech Republic, built around the same time. There was one in Prague’s Old Town Square, erected in 1650 but was torn down in 1918, as it was seen as a symbol of the Habsburgs.

Plague Column

The Plague Column in Vienna. Photo: cesc_assawin/Shutterstock.com

Plague Column

The Plague Column in Košice, Slovakia. Photo: Scotch Mist/Wikimedia Commons

Plague Column

The Plague Column in Kutná Hora, in Czech Republic. Photo: Lhotanka/Wikimedia Commons

References:
# Jstor, https://daily.jstor.org/how-to-memorialize-a-plague/
# Frances D. Fergusson, https://www.jstor.org/stable/988594
# Boris Velimirovic and Helga Velimirovic, https://www.jstor.org/stable/4455344
# Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Plague_of_Vienna

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