Plague 2009

In the shadow of the Wiener Pestsäule, could we be inviting another global pandemic?

An engraving of a hospital in Vienna in 1679 at the height of the “Black Death,” killing a third of the world’s population

Emerging from the U-Bahn, taking the exit marked “Graben” and slowly escalating up to the street, the chandeliers of Christmas lights on Stephansplatz is certainly a beautiful sight, startling, lustrous, extravagant, transforming this public thoroughfare into an imperial ballroom.

This splendor is only magnified by the wondrous Pestsäule, whose golden spears of light and gold-leaf scrolls are accentuated by the star shower of lights from above. The serene faces and rounded bodies of winged angels and cherubs peer down at you from heavenly cloud puffs.

Then you get closer. Scrolls written in ornate Latin appear and images in bas-relief of the Last Supper and the Resurrection tell the stories of faith. An angel and a cherub strike down the sinner, suffering in agony at the front of the column. This beauty has a dark side. The Plague was considered a punishment by God for the sins of mankind, and the message of the Column is that it was through the prayers of the Emperor Leopold, transmitted to God by the angels, that Austria was saved.

Below, on the steps, tourists pose in front of the Column, recording the moment before moving off to get a glass of Punsch at the Lions Club Stand 50 meters down the way. And I am left standing there, puzzling to understand the depth of feeling behind this monument, what it meant to Austrians then and what it may still mean to them now.

The Pestsäule is a beautiful piece of sculpture, but it is also a memorial to great suffering, of the millions of people who died from the Bubonic Plague that swept through Vienna in 1679.  Because of the lack of knowledge of science, or any understanding of such bacterial diseases and how to prevent them, the Viennese population – and all of Europe – was decimated by a n unnannounceddisease carried by the traders coming over the Danube, along the crowded and densely built streets of the walled city. Ultimately the Plague took the lives of 76,000 inhabitants of the Habsburg capital.

Today we are past all this. We have modern technology to prevent losing one third of the world’s population….

Or do we?

The Swine Flu, Schweinegrippe in German, seems to be everywhere these days. It headlines the front pages of every daily and weekly paper. It echoes across radios and televisions at any hour of the day or night. It’s a hot topic of conversation among just about everyone.

The swine flu is not only infecting bodies, it is infecting minds.

According to, an organization dedicated to reporting the most recent swine flu statistics, there are 964 cases of infection in Austria and three deaths. Even though an effective swine flu vaccine is available, Europeans are showing a widespread opposition to it. This skepticism comes as the European Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Stockholm reports the number of deaths due to the H1N1 virus doubling every two weeks since October. People are worried about possible side effects; they claim the need for the vaccine is not great enough to risk getting the disease from the alleged cure. Whatever the reason, the number of swine flu cases continues to rise, and the virus is turning out to be much more threatening than originally thought.

But you can understand the skeptics. A few years back, a bird flu caused a big scare, but in the end only 262 people were killed over six years. While it did take the lives of about half the people it infected, the virus was not easily transmittable.

The swine flu, however, is a different story. The virus has already caused approximately 12,000 deaths worldwide in only eight months, most likely because the body is easily infected through coughing, sneezing, or even simply touching a surface with the virus on it. It may not be as bad as the 1918 flu epidemic – brutally adding insult to injury in the final months of The Great War – that left 20 to 40 million people dead in Europe as a whole. But it’s bad enough.

Still, no epidemic has ever left its mark on Europeans like the Black Death. When it was finally over, the Emperor Leopold I erected the magnificent Wiener Pestsäule as a symbol of his gratitude to God for the city’s deliverance from the Plague.

So back to the Graben on a weekday evening in late November. Vienna has managed to transform a period of great suffering into an extraordinary piece of art that was widely imitated throughout the Empire and is now admired by thousands daily. Today we wonder how much we should fear the Swine Flu. Could we be inviting another pandemic, that comes across the Danube, the Enns, the Rhine or the Loire, silently, when we are busy with our lives.

But perhaps something beautiful is possible here, too, a column in praise of the science we all believe will save us in spite ourselves. That something beautiful will arise from the anxiety we feel on the edges of our lives, the panic we read about somewhere else, that we are sure will never find its way here, under the lights of Advent in Vienna.

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