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The plague of the Philistines at Ashdod. Oil painting by Pieter van Halen, 1661.

  • Halen, Pieter van, 1612-1687.
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Credit: The plague of the Philistines at Ashdod. Oil painting by Pieter van Halen, 1661. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

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About this work


The plague is described in the Old Testament, I Samuel 5, 5-6. In the wars between the Israelites and Philistines the latter took the Holy Ark of the Covenant from the Israelites and set it up in their own shrine of the idol Dagon at Ashdod. On the following day Dagon's sculptured figure lay upturned and broken on the ground, and the same calamity repeated itself in other places of worship to which the Ark was removed. The threshold of Dagon became taboo for priests and worshippers, a fact which made them feel more helpless still in the face of another sign of divine wrath, for they were smitten with "tumours", in Hebrew "Emerods"; the Vulgate says the site of these emerods was "in secretiori parte natium" (in the most secret parts of the buttocks)

"A plague painting by van Halen in the Wellcome collection, No. 2113/1938, is signed and dated 1661 …. The theme is, like Poussin's, the plague at Ashdod; the temple is closely copied, as well as the group comprising the dead woman with man and baby. Van Halen would have seen Poussin's painting of 1630 either in Rome, or an early engraving from it. The young man to the left, who is attacked by the disease, has the physical fullness and suppleness of a figure by Rubens, whose works van Halen saw in Antwerp Cathedral, his own home town. His style is that of an eclectic, pleasing painter of historical subjects whose interest lay in descriptive details, such as the death-cart to the right and numerous gracefully moving women and childen, their faces too small to show any deeper expression. His handling of the romantically overgrown architecture that combines classical with contemporary styles, is worthy of the praise accorded him. The spacious distance of landscape and wide, sunny sky forms a balanced relief to the crowded foreground. Like Poussin and Raphael before him, his figures show no plague lesions." (Burgess, loc. cit.) In the painting people hold their hands over their mouths and noses to avoid inhaling the poisonous miasma of plague which was thought to emerge from the bodies of the dead



Physical description

1 painting : oil on canvas ; canvas 84.8 x 119.5 cm

References note

R. Burgess, 'Notes on some plague paintings', Medical history, 1976, 20: 422-428


Wellcome Library no. 44641i

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