Plague Doctor, 2011, by Erwin Olaf

Erwin Olaf Plague Doctor

Plague Doctor, 2011, by Erwin Olaf

There is a pleasant game in these days of enforced isolation against the spread of the coronavirus. Lots of people are posting their COVID-19 relevant images – and one day someone should make an attempt to inventory them.  This is mine.

It is too easy to forget the savagery of the European wars of religion.

This picture comes from a remarkable attempt to prevent that forgetting.  In 2011, the De Lakenhal Museum and the University of Leiden commissioned Erwin Olaf to make a monumental photographic version of a history painting – a complex tableau commemorating the Siege and Relief of Leiden in 1574. For three days in July 2011, Olaf took over the Pieterskirk in the city and turned it into the set for a major photographic shoot. He used amateur models to get faces of ‘ordinary people’ and a combination of dead and living animals, lots of props from the museum collections, paintings and engravings as guides or inspiration.

It is estimated that 6000 people died at Leiden.  The city was besieged by Spanish troops under the ultimate command of the Duke of Alba, the brilliant general of Philip II.  Philip was the son of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and he saw himself as the defender of Catholicism wherever it needed defence. That might be against the Ottoman near Vienna or in North Africa, or against Netherlanders in the Seventeen Provinces, or against faithless Englishmen, for that matter. Charles V had acquired his interest in the Low Countries as the heir of the Dukes of Burgundy, and the Seventeen Provinces stretched as far as Trier in the east and included Luxemburg and much of the present north of France as well as Belgium and the Netherlands. This represented a huge bloc of economic prosperity, always essential to be secured for Hapsburg expansion.

When religious objections combined with social unrest as they did in the period of the Iconoclasm (the name for the movement by which from the mid-1560s anti-Catholic demonstrators tore down religious statues and defaced paintings) to make the Netherlands visibly both Protestant and in rebellion, the central Hapsburg authority had to act.  Towns which refused to obey the demands for money were put down, either immediately or after a siege. There were massacres, burnings at the stake, people were thrown into freezing canals.  This happened at Zutphen, Oudewater, Naarden ..  When Haarlem yielded after a long siege, two thousand people died.  But in 1573, the town of Alkmaar successfully resisted.  As the Spanish troops withdrew, the new slogan “Victory begins at Alkmaar!” began to be heard.  When they left Alkmaar, the Spanish besieged Leiden, a town of about 18,000 people.  There, too, the Spanish were forced to give up the siege when troops under William of Orange broke the dykes and deliberately flooded the countryside on which the Spanish army had to live. On 3 October,1574 the siege was lifted.  By then, after appalling hardships, perhaps one third of the population had died, from famine or plague. Alba was recalled to Spain soon after.

This is not a very usual subject for photography.  The larger view is called Liberty – Plague and Famine During the Siege of Leiden (2011) and is a composite which includes at least two dozen figures, maybe more. One print is on permanent display in the De Lakenhal Museum.  It is wonderful thing, reminiscent at one level of the old ambitions of people like Henry Peach Robinson that photography might one day attain the status of art, but at the same time much more confident than that.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard that anybody has composed an opera about the Siege of Leiden, but if they did, Erwin Olaf’s great tableau would be on the cover of the record.  Erwin Olaf made it in stages, and he made a small number of still life studies and portraits while he was doing it.  This is one of those.  In the composite view, two plague doctors carry a pale victim through a shaft of light. I think the elegant rat you see here was used twice and also figures in the larger view.  The mask corresponds to real ones: people did hope for protection from contamination from wearing such a thing.  The long snout would have been filled with fragrant herbs to drive away the miasma of the plague.

Olaf a long time ago made a brilliant series simply called ‘Blacks’ – little rococo vignettes that are masterly in their ability to hover just at the threshold of visibility.  They are like facetted lumps of coal, glistening and glittering. This Plague Doctor is like that, but under even more control. It’s a beautiful thing, rare in its treatment, eerie in its effect. It harks back to a giant story of political and religious persecution, of hardship and adversity and survival and the reshaping of Europe. It even somehow has dark humour about it as well. It happens so well to fit our coronavirus period that it goes straight into Hodgson’s Choice.


5 thoughts on “Plague Doctor, 2011, by Erwin Olaf

  1. I think this is a genius choice.

    I just learned that Plague came from Central Eurasia with the proto Indo-European speaking Yamnaya. I think that might coincide with one of the near extinction episodes in H. Sapiens sapiens’ prehistory (Eske Willersler’s research team in Denmark thought to look). A geneticist at Harvard ( Reich) has written a popular book about human movements around the planet which has a section on Yamnaya.

    Btw, I watched a YouTube video of an interview you did w a photographer. Do you have a channel? Were the matching Red Sox an accident, or a brotherhood shibboleth ?
    I hope you have taped many more with interesting photographers, curators, gallery owners, biographers…, but mostly w/ the photographers (Red Sox interviews? ).It could be of use to historians too. And I would love for there to be a button on this page that enables one (me), to hear you read the essay. You have a great voice! I know that takes time and equipment and possibly being within 6 feet of someone else….

    Please stay well.

  2. Terrific photography Terrific story As always Great writing Thank you for your contributions to photography… it is an embracing gift Best Richard

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