See previous thesis post: Pestilence & Prayer: Madonna della Misericordia (7)
The final type of St Sebastian’s plague art is Sebastian directly interceding on behalf a town or city. Giovanni del Biondo’s Altarpiece of Saint Sebastian contains an intercession-image on one of the altarpiece’s wings. The lowest scene of the left-handed wing depicts inhabitants of a town pleading with Sebastian to end the plague. The city is devastated and barren from the deaths of the citizens. In the foreground gravediggers lift a corpse onto a bier as people mourn the loss. It is this scene and the historical record of a plague outbreak in Florence in 1376 that supports the hypothesis that this altarpiece was made as a positive reaction against a reoccurrence of the plague.
In addition to art, St. Sebastian is invoked in plague-themes literature and prayers. Rosemary Horrox’s The Black Death includes a prayer called: A prayer made to St. Sebastian against the mortality which flourished in 1349:
O St. Sebastian, guard and defend me, morning and evening, every minute of every hour, while I am still of sound mind; and, Martyr, diminish the strength of that vile illness called an epidemic which is threatening me. Protect and keep me and all my friends from this plague.
The prayer continues by describing St. Sebastian’s life and martyrdom with very little reference to the plague, and ends with this statement:
O martyr Sebastian! Be with us always, and by your merits keep us safe and sound and protect from plague. Commend us to the Trinity and to the Virgin Mary, so that when we die we may have our reward: to behold God in the company of martyrs.
This prayer exemplifies the feeling toward death during the plague: the idea of a “good” death. The faithful should always be ready for the unpredictable death by preparing one’s soul beforehand.
Next thesis blog post: Pestilence & Prayer: Vita of St. Christopher (9)
- DesOrmeaux, Anna L. “The Black Death and Its Effect on Fourteenth and Fifteenth-Century Art”. MA diss., Louisiana University, 2007.
- Horrox, Rosemary, Editor and Translator. The Black Death. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994.
- Norman, Diana. “Change and continuity: art and religion after the Black Death.” In Siena, Florence, and Padua: Art, Society, and Religion 1280-1400, Volume I: Interpretive Essays. Edited by Diana Norman, 177-196. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
- Vaslef, Irene. “The Role of St. Roch as a Plague Saint: A Late Medieval Hagiographic Tradition.” Ph.D. diss., The Catholic University of America, 1984.