The plague in Marseille

The plague in Marseille

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  • The Devotion of Monseigneur de Belsunce during the plague of Marseille in 1720.

    MONSIAU Nicolas André (1754 - 1837)

  • View of the town hall and part of the port of Marseille during the plague epidemic of 1720.

    RIGAUD Jacques (1680 - 1754)

  • View of the Cours de Marseille (boulevard de la Canebière) during the plague epidemic of 1720.

    RIGAUD Jacques (1680 - 1754)

The Devotion of Monseigneur de Belsunce during the plague of Marseille in 1720.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Louvre Museum) / Thierry Le Mage

View of the town hall and part of the port of Marseille during the plague epidemic of 1720.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Palace of Versailles) / Franck Raux

View of the Cours de Marseille (boulevard de la Canebière) during the plague epidemic of 1720.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Palace of Versailles) / Franck Raux

Publication date: March 2013

Historical context

The plague that struck the city of Marseille in 1720 is one of the latest manifestations of a wave of epidemics of the disease which, from 1580, affected modern France and Western Europe.

With nearly 100,000 inhabitants, Marseille was then the third largest city in the kingdom of France, a port city with international influence and a strong social hierarchy. This tragedy will have immediate repercussions on Marseille's demography and lasting repercussions on the commercial prosperity of the city.

The commentators of the time, then the historians of Marseilles, noted the courageous attitude of Henri François-Xavier de Belsunce de Castelmoron, bishop of Marseilles, abbot of Notre-Dame-des-Chambons, adviser to the king who, in this atmosphere of death and desolation, aided the sick and ignored the danger. Duffaud in 1911.

Image Analysis

In priestly habit, wearing his miter, holding a ciborium in his left hand, the bishop gives communion to the plague victims near Fort Saint-Jean. He leans over a dying mother whose naked child has already succumbed to the disease. The path that the man of the Church has taken to reach the dying is strewn with corpses, but this macabre spectacle has not stopped him in the exercise of his ministry and has not weakened his determination: he is in his place in the midst of the flock of his suffering faithful, gives them the last sacraments and does not fear death, however omnipresent around him.

Capuchins and Jesuits, carrying crooks, ewer, torches and crosses, almost as numerous as the plague victims, devote themselves to the bedside of the sick, ready to sacrifice their lives. A monk points to the heavens, indicating to the dying their final resting place. Pyramid-shaped and animated with obliques, the composition presents the "push-back" figures in the foreground, to better showcase the courage and action of the representatives of the Catholic Church. On the face, in the attitude and in the eyes of the dying, one reads the panic, the distress and the worry that contrasting light and a gradation of colors accentuate and dramatize. The work thus contrasts drama and tragedy with courage and dedication.


In the iconographic corpus of the Marseille drama, two figures dominate: the Chevalier Roze à la Tourette and the Bishop of Belsunce, one symbolizing the intervention of the State, the other that of the Catholic Church. As the city crumbles, they embody the guarantors of social and moral order. Exhibited at the Salon of 1819 and acquired that same year by Louis XVIII, Monsiau's painting, in the form of an “exemplum virtutis”, perfectly illustrates the Catholic faith celebrated under the first Restoration: for the restored monarchy it is a question of to make religious sentiment flourish again and to purify manners.

The work is also linked to the romantic current of the moment which in the wake of Chateaubriand (Genius of Christianity, 1802) expresses his admiration for the Christian religion, for morality and humanity. It is also, through the choice of its colors, its general gray-mauve harmony, its icy and regular pictorial material, typical of Monsiau's work.

But the canvas is also to be put in relation with a "Notice on the life of the painter" published following the death of the artist in 1837. Monsiau, we read there, learned, when he had started his painting, that he was stricken with stone disease and needed urgent surgery. The painter, however, decided to brave the danger and did not want to know anything until he had finished his painting, for, he declared: "If this delay exposes me to death, my last work will at least have been a tribute to virtue. "And his biographer concludes:" The plague of Marseilles was over, in fact, and while the public surrounded the painting with its praise, the painter endured with unwavering calm the most painful operation of surgery. "

  • Marseilles
  • disease
  • religion
  • epidemics
  • Provence


· From David to Delacroix. French painting from 1774 to 1830, catalog of the Grand Palais exhibition, Paris, R.M.N., 1974.

· Dominique AICARDI-CHÈVE, “The body of contagion. Anthropological study of iconographic representations of the plague (16th-20th centuries in Europe) ”, doctoral thesis in biological anthropology, University of the Mediterranean, 2003.

· Régis BERTRAND, "The iconography of the plague in Marseille or the long memory of a catastrophe" in Images of Provence. Iconographic representations from the end of the Middle Ages to the mid-twentieth century, Aix-en-Provence, University of Provence, 1992.

Charles CARRIÈRE and alii, Marseille dead city. The plague of 1720, Marseille, Maurice Boy Publisher, 1968.

To cite this article

Pascal DUPUY, "The plague in Marseille"

Video: The Plague Medieval Documentary


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