Man suffering from buboes and splotches related to the plague

An artist's illustration of a man suffering from buboes and splotches during the medieval-era plague epidemic

Matthias Grunewald/Bridgeman Art Library/­Getty Images

Friends for Life: The Grim Reaper and the Plague

­Conceptually, the Angel of Death was firmly entrenched in European religion and culture by the time of the Middle Ages. But an epidemiological event occurred in the late 14th century that would forever change how the average person viewed, and responded to, death. That event was the medieval-era plague, one of the deadliest pandemics in human history. At least 25 million people died in the initial outbreak of the plague, and millions more continued to die in outbreaks that flared up for centuries [source: National Geographic]. Fear -- of dying, of the unknown pestilence, of the pain associated with the late stage of the disease, when the skin on a victim's extremities turned black and gangrenous -- gripped the entire continent. A general mood of morbidity hung over all activities and influenced writers and painters of the time.

Not surprisingly, death began to appear as a skeleton in artwork from this era. In fact, most artists portrayed the skeletal form of death in similar ways. He was often shown holding a dart, crossbow or some other weapon. Eventually, these implements would be replaced with a scythe, a mowing tool composed of a long curving blade fastened at an angle to a long handle. Many paintings showed death swinging the scythe through a crowd of people, mowing down souls as if they were grain. Sometimes, a young woman stood at death's side as a reminder of the link existing between life and death. Another popular notion was that death could interact with the living and tempt them to the grave. Hence the Dance of Death, or Danse Macabre, in which skeletons are shown dancing and cavorting with people from all walks of life.

­The Grim Reaper w­as born from these post-plague visions of death. On the next page, we'll look at the meaning behind his form and figure.