One of many sobering memories that kept coming back to me as the United States fell into the grip of Covid-19 were the Holy Trinity (Plague) Columns that I have seen during my Eastern European travels. These monuments of morbidity are almost impossible to avoid in historical city centers. To give but one example, within the first couple of hours after setting foot in Hungary, I walked into the magnificent Szechenyi Square in Pecs where I saw among other things, the beautiful bronze equestrian statue of Janos Hunyadi, the Mosque of Pasha Qasim, an eclectic façade of the Fatebenefratelli Church, the neo-baroque inspired City Hall and a Trinity column, otherwise known as a plague column. The architectural mood of the pastel colored facades, domes and details of the structures surrounding the square was both grand and festive. The only ominous exception was the Plague Column which despite its baroque splendor filled me with a dreadful curiosity.
I always found Plague Columns too beautiful to protect against something so ghastly as a disease that could reduce a city sized population to insignificance in a matter of weeks. The Bubonic plague was the most notorious and an all too common occurrence from medieval to early modern times. Characterized by swollen lymph nodes (also known as buboes), flu like symptoms accompanied by fever and vomiting, Bubonic plague was extremely lethal. Evidence of its wrath is marked In town square after town square across Austria, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic by Plague Columns. These ornately decorated Baroque monuments from the 17th and 18th centuries rise above cobbled streets. I found them to be photogenic, with their angels, saints and putti swirling around in charismatic scenes. I always felt a bit guilty photographing the columns for their artistic beauty and exquisite craftsmanship. After all, the historical tragedies they memorialized were a recurring scourge in Central and Eastern Europe.
Periodic Pestilence – Supersized Brushes With Death
The plague is most often connected with the legendarily horrific Black Death of the 14th century which wiped out approximately 50 percent of Europe’s population at the time. Unbeknownst too many, this was only the first of successive outbreaks of the plague (many of them Bubonic) which reconfigured the demographic destinies of empires, kingdoms and other polities of those times. The plague was a recurring menace that left depopulation and depression in its wake. A capricious source of terror, it inflicted untold suffering upon thousands. Combating the plague was often as much a matter of faith as it was medicine. Plague Columns are one of the few things that outlasted the periodic bouts of pestilence that wreaked havoc from medieval to early modern Europe. That is not surprising since they were erected after a city had managed to survive these supersized brushes with death.
Vienna and Budapest, these two cities are redolent of the charms and grandeur of Old Europe, but a great deal of their development is a post 17th century phenomenon. This is true for almost all of Budapest and a great deal of Vienna as well. This is because during the latter part of the 17th century, Budapest was under the Ottoman yoke, while Vienna was a city not far from the military frontier and under imminent threat. A great deal of destruction was wrought upon both cities both during and after the Ottoman Turks. While many are familiar with the epic siege of Vienna by the Ottomans in 1683, far fewer are aware that the plague ravaged the city just four years before that.
Disease Ridden – The Great Plague of Vienna
The Great Plague of Vienna that struck in 1679 was one of the worst outbreaks to strike a European city and would lead to the ubiquitous plague columns that have become standard monuments in towns throughout the Habsburg Empire. During my first visit to Vienna a decade ago, I was struck by the sheer cleanliness of the city. Everything, from the sidewalks to major thoroughfares to public transport, was sparkling clean. Cleanliness is a modern virtue of the Viennese. Those who are less than historically minded could be forgiven for believing that it was always this way. The historical record tells a very different story. In 1679, Vienna was an exceedingly foul and polluted place filled with the detritus of human squalor. Its citizens piled their garbage in the streets, drainage was poor to nonexistent and its streets were crucibles of festering sickness. This fetid environment was a breeding ground for rats to run rampant and by extension, disease.
That is just what happened in 1679 when the plague broke out in the city. The result was a disaster that rivaled anything in the city’s historical experience. An estimated 76,000 people died, that was at least a quarter of the population. Disposing of the bodies was problematic. Pits were dug on the city’s periphery to burn the bodies. Unwisely, the authorities decided to pile as many bodies into these pits as possible, leaving them exposed for days. This only served to allow rats into the pits and stimulate even greater pestilence. While this was occurring, the Habsburg Emperor Leopold I fled the city fearing for his life. Before leaving for Prague he was said to have prayed to God for the city’s deliverance from the plague. He also vowed to have a column constructed as thanks for mercy if the plague ended. It took fifteen years and numerous iterations, including a wooden one erected by the Viennese, before the column was completed in 1694. It became known as the Holy Trinity or Plague Column (Pestsaule) due to its origins and design.
Powerful Messenger – A Model Of Faith
Vienna’s Plague Column still stands today in the Graben, one of the inner city’s most famous streets. It became the model for Plague Columns that were later erected across Habsburg ruled lands. The column was meant to send a powerful message to the Emperor’s subjects that Leopold I’s intercession with God saved the city from both the plague and the Ottoman siege. To that point, Leopold is shown on a lower pedestal praying to God. Angels, acting as a mediator with God, are represented in the area above Leopold. The column’s top portion portrays the Holy Trinity. This consists of a gilded God the Father, Jesus the Son holding a cross and the Holy Spirit represented by a dove in the center of the sun.
The iconography is rich with detail and filled with symbolic meaning all done up in the lavish style of Baroque art. Sadly, much of the column’s spiritual power is lost on the throngs of tourists who spend a few minutes at most staring at the column and nothing more. The Viennese of the late 17th and 18th centuries would have been much more devout. They knew that there was a possibility that at any moment the plague might return. And that is exactly what would happen across many parts of the Habsburg Empire.