By Haven Ashley
Inspired by the decadence and debauchery of the famed Venetian Carnival, Plague Mask, by painter Teresa Oaxaca, is a ghoulish reckoning of science and vanity. The life-size portrait, rendered in tones of pewter and smoked amethyst, was painted after the artist visited Italy, several years before mask-wearing became part of our everyday routine. Now, viewed in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the significance of Oaxaca’s best-in-show is a macabre coincidence of circumstance and subject. A reminder that pride does not provide immunity to infection; an apple can be wormed at the core no matter how pink the skin.
The figure in Oaxaca’s painting wears the mask of the Medico Della Peste; the plague doctor. Seventeenth-century French physician Charles de Lorme is credited with inventing the eerie, full-body protective garment, easily recognized by its distinct, avian mask. Intended to shield the wearer from the bubonic plague, the mask’s beaked tip was often filled with flowers or fragrant herbs to temper any unwelcome odors of the sick. The dramatic curved mandible brings to mind another hooked, half-moon omen—the dreadful arc of the Grim Reaper’s scythe, Death’s shepherd’s crook. And indeed, the very sight of the plague doctor was soon feared as a harbinger of death to sufferers of a plague that claimed millions of victims.
Eventually, as the specter of its original context lost its malice, the plague doctor would become one of the most popular costumes at the Venetian Carnival, influenced by both de Lorme’s hair-raising attire, and a character trope familiar to viewers of commedia dell’arte, an early form of Italian theater.
Oaxaca’s plague doctor is, noticeably, lacking other necessary vestments: personal protective equipment in the form of a long leather coat, hood, hat, gloves, and cane. Perhaps the figure’s nudity is a reference to the raucous delights of the carnival, those wanton, fleshy desires that must remain bottled up during the subsequent Lenten season.
The male figure in Plague Mask is solitary, not out among masked revelers enjoying the temptations provided by anonymity. Showered in flowers like an adored thespian, maybe this man is reflecting on his commedia dell’arte character. Fortunately for him, he was not cast as another familiar trope—the fool.