Humans have always been obsessed with purity. We associate poor health with environmental and spiritual pollution, while purity of body, mind and behaviour has been promoted as a route to good health and spirituality. This gallery shows how some cultures and communities have used air, water, pain and sexual restraint in their pursuit of purity.
In this bleak scene, painted in 1900, Czech artist Hanuš Schwaiger not only laments the environmental devastation and death reaped by unrestrained industrialisation, but also the social upheaval and economic injustice it results in. Heavily polluted air, water and soil is a reflection of the moral corruption and decadence of those who profit most from it.
The 100 years that preceded Schwaiger’s painting had been the most productive ever for the most industrialised societies in Europe, North America and Japan. They had also seen a rapid increase in wealth inequality and unprecedented outbreaks of disease, such as cholera and typhoid, in crowded cities choked by polluted water and air.
The Great Plague of 1665–66 killed a quarter of London’s population (100,000 people) in 18 months, spreading quickly through the city’s poorest and most crowded areas. Many of Richard Tennant Cooper’s metaphorical phantasmic paintings depict disease arising from and consuming its polluted surroundings, in this case, through bubonic plague.
Such rampant and random death was thought by some to be caused by the wrath of God. Other explanations included the position of the planets, foreigners poisoning wells or the spread of noxious vapour. Dr George Thomson outlined the causes and signs, and suggested preventative and curative measures against “the pest” in this 1666 book, based on a dissection of “the pestilential body”.
In Buddhist, Taoist and Shinto practice, the burning of incense sticks made of benzoin or sandalwood purifies the surroundings to bring forth buddhas, bodhisattvas, gods and demons. This Japanese watercolour depicts a body being prepared for transport to the temple. Burning incense accompanies each stage of the ceremony.
Many religions practise ritual cleansing with water to purify the body and spirit. In Islam, wuḍū involves washing the hands, mouth, nostrils, arms, head and feet with water and is typically done in preparation for formal prayers. The rectangular tank for wuḍū can be seen in the centre of the courtyard, to be used before entering the Jama Masjid in New Delhi.
Bathing or immersing the entire body is an important Hindu purifying practice, particularly in rivers considered holy, such as the Ganges, depicted here. Unfortunately, the Ganges is simultaneously highly sacred and extremely polluted, receiving sewage and industrial waste as well as religious offerings.
For many cultures, spiritual purity is inseparable from purity of character, and in some cases, the prevention of self-pollution can take extreme forms. In the 1300s Europe saw the rise of flagellants, groups of up to 10,000 people who would lash themselves in public, expecting the wrath of God against society’s corruption.
Although the popularity of self-flagellation declined during the 1400s, the Christian belief in penance through fasting or self-inflicted harm continued into the 1800s. During this period disease was associated with sin, so by wearing horsehair undershirts or spiked leg bands such as these, a Christian could purify themselves and repent for society’s sins, helping avert God’s anger and the spread of illness.
In the 1500s, when this engraving was made, syphilis was a huge public health issue. Here a shepherd and a hunter are warned against giving in to lust, represented by the water streaming from Venus’s breast. Another shepherd drinks water a dog has just urinated in, showing that failure to abstain risks the pollution of body – and possible infection with syphilis – and character.
Syphilis was only fully combated with the development of penicillin in the early 1900s. The late 20th century saw the emergence of AIDS/HIV, and the reiteration in many cultures that abstinence from extramarital sex was the most effective preventative measure. This 1996 AIDS-prevention advert from India applies the message to Christian, Hindu and Muslim marriage, associating religious, heteronormative conformity with spiritual and physical purity.
About the author
Sol is the Engagement Officer for the Art & Health project at Wellcome Collection. The project involves cataloguing and promoting the use of selected art and archive collections in the Library.