Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Plague Doctor

The only thing more obscure and solitary, or obscurely solitary, than blogging is probably maskmaking. Except for maybe medeival plague doctoring.

The plague doctors, or the Medico Della Peste, were the unlucky, usually unsuccessful doctors that found themselves treating those sick with the plague, bubonic or otherwise.

It is important to know that, because of their constant exposure to disease, these plague doctors were generally social outcasts, spending a large chunk of their life in quarantine.

Nota Bene:
Nostradamas was famous for his plague doctoring. His most brilliant piece of medical advice for not contracting the plague was to leave town.

Everything about the plague doctor costume was designed for maximum plague protection. It was believed that the plague was carried by birds, so the shape of the mask seems to derive from an they-who-giveth-also-taketh-away assumption. In this beak, the physicians placed various herbs and spices to mask the smell of the dying, rotting, barfing, ect. Crystal covered the eyeholes, giving the impression of spectacles.

The visual result of all these protections is really menacing. The Plague Doctor became a popular character in Venetian Carnival, celebrating Memento Mori, or "Remember you will die."

Here are some examples of modern plague doctor masks I found in this summer in Venice.

The first one is very traditional, and the second a more artistic interpretation.

Our doctor was a group effort. Hayley began with a rolled-newspaper base to support our clay beak, Nick constructed the basic outline of the mask from clay, and I finished it up, bringing its features to a theatrical level. Rather than a standard plague doctor, I chose to give it an accentuated expression, trying to translate human elements of the original wearers into the mask. It is important to look at a mask from all different vantage points. The dramatic nature of this mask's beak, looking from the front and the side, demonstrates how a mask can shift expression based on angle.

 UPDATE: The Final Products.

The final masks ended being this interesting mix of adorable and creepy, depending on the angle viewed and also the body language of the performer. Their paint job is very traditional, white, and incorporating the black spectacles to protect the eyes from the plague. I however, used shadow and highlight to suggest more human features, such as a brow, and to accentuate the eyes.

For the production, the Plague Doctors had their moment in the spotlight in a transition, in which they waddled out in long black robes and medicial probes, and proceeded to check the audience for diseases. 


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  2. Hello! I found this post randomly googling images of plague masks, and was wondering about the second picture you've used (of the doctor with the crows following him). Do you know the name of the piece or of the artist, or if it's for sale anywhere?

    1. After a google "search by image" (Yeah, you can actually do that) I found the artist. http://surlyermine.com/tag/plague-doctor/
      Ermine, doesn't seem to be a big artist but maybe you can get in touch =)

      Hope I helped