The Plague Doctor - WMODA | Wiener Museum

The Plague Doctor

As we all shelter at home inventing new types of masks, we are looking back at the plague doctor’s mask which was used in Europe in the 17th century. The bird-like beak mask was filled with aromatic herbs and spices or dried flowers to disguise the evil smells of the bubonic plague, which were believed to spread infection.

Today, the miasma theory of airborne diseases has generally been replaced by the germ theory. However, the plague doctors had the right idea with protective clothing – an early version of a hazmat suit. Their outfit consisted of an ankle length coat, leggings and gloves made of leather with a wide-brimmed hat denoting their profession. Spectacles were worn to shield their eyes.

The sinister costume terrified people during the great plague of 1656 as it was considered a sign of imminent death. Today, the outfit is often seen during Venetian carnival and the plague doctor’s mask is worn for fun. Balocoloc of Venice make unique hand-painted carnival masks in traditional style, many of which are on display in the Carnival & Cabaret exhibition at WMODA.

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Venetian Masks