Der Doctor Schnabel von Rom is a painting or more of an illustration of a ‘plague doctor’ that was quite common and popular during the middle ages, especially during the devastation of the Plague in Europe.
‘Der Doctor Schnabel von Rom’ is the shortened version of the actual title of the painting. The complete name of this artwork by German painter Paul Fürst is:
‘Doctor Schnabel von Rom, a plague doctor wearing a protective mask with a beak filled with aromatic spices
That’s a mouthful, right? We’ll stick to calling this painting Der Doctor Schnabel von Rom for the sake of simplicity.
Structure and Composition
The painting looks like something you would see painted on a poster. There is a lot of text and some illustrations in the background. The central figure takes up most of the space.
The sky in the background has been created with a gradient. The upper part of the sky is dark, while the lower part is light. It gives an effect of the upcoming storm.
Also notice how the ground around the doctor has darkness, making it look like darkness goes wherever the doctor is walking.
That’s all to the composition of the painting. The color and the appearance are used to make the painting spooky and scary. These doctors looked less like doctors and more like the Grim Reaper.
The Theme and Subject of the Painting
The theme of the painting is fear and death and the panic that was prevalent in Europe during the Black Plague. Black Plague was the disease that killed millions of Europeans.
The Dark Ages was a time when there was hardly any scientific growth or achievement. People were living in the worst conditions, and there was an air of superstition that affected everyone.
During the plague, people did not have access to healthcare because there was no healthcare at all. Medicine had not been discovered and most of the “medicines” were just herbs, roots, and leeches.
With the coming of the plague, these ‘plague doctors’ came. “Doctor” is a term that we use loosely because they were not doctors. All they did was take some strong Indian spices like ginger, etc, and placed them in their long beak of a nose.
These strong spices were believed to be effective against the plague. These doctors were just scamming people by taking their money and giving no treatment in return.
This painting is made to create a spooky and terrifying image of these ‘doctors.’ You can even see a group of children running away from another doctor in the background.
You must be thinking what does the writing say? The writing is a poem written in Latin. Here’s the translation of the poem:
“You believe it is a fable What is written about Dr. Beak Who flees the contagion And snatches his wage from it He seeks cadavers to eke out a living Just like the raven on the dung heap Oh believe, don’t look away For the plague rules Rome. Who would not be very frightened Before his little rod or stick By which means he speaks as though he were mute, and indicates his decision So many a one believes without doubt That he is touched by a black devil His hell is called “purse” And the souls he fetches are gold.”
As you can see, the painting and the writing are meant as pejorative tools to convey how these scammers were looting people. They dressed dramatically and did nothing to help but charged a good amount of money.
They preyed on people’s fears and helplessness. The painting shows them in their true light; grim reapers who collect gold instead of souls to keep them for their purposes. And they were just as dark as the black plague.
Also Read: How the painting “Human Fragility by Salvator Rosa” showed the effects of the Black Plague on families.