Plague Columns in Central Europe

Plague columns, or Marian and Holy Trinity columns, dot Central Europe—partial lists can be found on the German wikipedia pages for Pestsäule and Mariensäule. These columns were often three sided to represent the Holy Trinity, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and decorated with various saints. Wealthy citizens, fraternities, and even emperors commissioned and erected plague columns to thank God for ending a plague epidemic. During the Baroque period these columns became important symbols of Counter-Reformation Catholicism.

One of the more famous plague columns stands in the Graben in Vienna. In 1679 a major plague epidemic broke out in Vienna. By the time it ended, nearly 80,000 citizens had died. To celebrate the end of the epidemic, Emperor Leopold I commissioned a Pestsäule. After more than a decade, the column was finally inagurated in 1693 (if you can read German, skip the anemic English wikipedia page and read the German one). Two decades later, Emperor Charles VI commissioned Karlskirche to celebrate the end of yet another plague epidemic.

The plague column in the Graben in Vienna.
The plague column in the Graben in Vienna.

In Košice, Slovakia, there is a smaller plague column toward the north end of the central square. It too celebrated the end of a plague epidemic, one that gripped the city in 1709-1710. Although smaller than its ornate cousin in Vienna, the plague column in Košice is nice example of Baroque Catholicism. These plague columns, particular those dedicated to the Virgin Mary, were key instruments of Counter Reformation authority.

The plague column in the central square in Košice, Slovakia.
The plague column in the central square in Košice, Slovakia.

But plague columns date back centuries. In the former cemetery in Klosterneuburg there is a Gothic plague column, often called the Tutz-Säule. The local citizen Michael Tutz dedicated this column in 1381 to celebrate the end of a recent plague epidemic.

The Tutz-Säule in the former cemetery at Klosterneuburg monastery.
The Tutz-Säule in the former cemetery at Klosterneuburg monastery.

These plague columns raise questions about the roles monuments play in shaping histories and our understanding of the past. At the same time, comparing contemporary columns highlights the visual and cultural tropes that were meaningful at the time. And comparing later columns with earlier ones helps us see how those tropes changed.

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