What Is a Hieronymus Bosch Mask, and Why Were They Made?

June 24, 2020 Published by Leave your thoughts

Who knew that protective face masks would become the hottest new face accessory in New Orleans, LA and beyond? Whereas the team at Art & Eyes is usually all about the eyewear, we, like the rest of the country, have been using face masks any time we go out in public.

Many people are taking the COVID-19 pandemic and our protective face mask requirement to new, fashionable heights—and there’s nothing more eye-catching or fear-inspiring than the plague doctor masks from the bubonic plague era. These are also called Hieronymus Bosch masks.

The rise of the plague doctor

For centuries, the “Black Death” swept through Europe, killing millions. The worst period was during the 15th century, but the disease continued to come back in waves over the next several hundred years (and, in fact, it still lurks today, although it is far less prevalent).

In the 17th century, plague doctors wore face masks with a long, beak-like protrusion. Herbs were enclosed in the mask, and there were two nostril holes near the nose to allow the wearer to breathe. Plague doctors also completely covered themselves from head to toe, and may have carried incense or other burning herbs to ward off the plague. So how was that supposed to ward off bubonic plague, which was spread by fleas?

Through our 2020 lens, it’s hard to imagine why people thought that plague could be fought off by a sinister-looking beaked mask, especially because our current pandemic actually does require the use of masks. However, we have the benefit of understanding germ theory—we know that tiny invisible pathogens can be spread by coughing and sneezing, which is why we wear masks during the coronavirus pandemic.

However, 400 years ago, people though diseases were spread by “miasma,” or bad air—and if they cured the air, they could avoid disease. That’s why the beaks of plague doctor masks were filled with herbs and incense—they wanted to purify the air before it reached their noses.

If the plague doctors were dealing with (and carrying) pneumonic plague, a respiratory illness, the masks would have been useful in the same way that face masks are useful in preventing the spread of COVID-19—by limiting the number of respiratory droplets that can be spread by the wearer. However, if they didn’t wash their hands with soap and water, they could still spread the disease.

The plague doctors are an instantly recognizable character, even if they didn’t stop the spread of the disease. It wouldn’t be until the 19th century that Louis Pasteur would share his observations on germ theory (which had been explored but not accepted for centuries prior) and we would finally gain an understanding of how diseases really spread.

Now that you know the history behind plague doctor masks, will you get one of your own? If not, come get the other hottest face accessory of 2020—eyewear—to go with your protective face masks in New Orleans, LA. Art & Eyes has hundreds of styles to suit every face. Reach out to learn more about our selection!

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