03. Early Europe & Colonial Americas Art & Humanities Christianity Religion

Pestilence & Prayer: St. Christopher in Art (10)

May 22, 2020

There are two important criteria that make St. Christopher a “second-tier” plague saint: arrows from his martyrdom and a popular inscription. As seen in his Vita, Christopher was shot with arrows, but also survived. This form of “resurrection” is mirrored in St. Sebastian’s martyrdom; both saints can personify the hope of surviving the plague and can “ground” arrows into their bodies. Christine Boeckl also connects Sts. Christopher and Sebastian through their hagiographies in her article “Giorgio Vasari’s San Rocco Altarpiece: Tradition and Innovation in Plague Iconography.” She writes that they were both invoked as plague intercessors during an epidemic in the sixth and seventh centuries.

A popular inscription often included with images of St. Christopher is translated as: “Whoever looks on the figure of St. Christopher will assuredly on that date be overcome by no faintness.” It is unclear how this giant-saint became conflated with daily protection, but variations of this inscription were prevalent in art. One example of St. Christopher’s powerful inscription is the sixteenth century woodcut, St. Christopher (image above). On the bottom of the image of St. Christopher with the Christ-child crossing a river are these words: “CHRISTOFORI FACIEM DIE QUACUMQUE TUERIS ILLA NEMQUE DIE MORTE MALA NON MORIERIS;” translated as: “On whatever day the face of Christopher thou shalt see on that day no evil form of death shall visit thee.”

The image of St. Christopher was often displayed either in an especially prominent position inside a church or greatly over-sized on the outside a church so that everyone could look upon him and gain his protection that day, such as a fresco in San Miniato al Monte in Florence of an oversized St. Christopher (image below). Even without the specific inscription included, St. Christopher’s iconographic formula serves as a representation of his Vita and protection against death.

*Note: In order to be visible at a distance, the image of St. Christopher was made very large, perhaps the origin of his great size.

St. Christopher is depicted most often with Sts. Sebastian and Roch in plague-themed art. Antonio Aleotti created a triptych of the three saints in which St. Christopher appears on Sebastian’s right, with his iconic staff and the petite Christ-child on his shoulders (first image below). St. Roch is seen on the left of Sebastian. He is depicted with one legging down to present a plague bubo on his thigh. The Polyptych of St. Roch by Cesare da Sesto also shows St. Christopher with Roch and Sebastian (2nd image below). The central and largest image is of St. Roch while St. Sebastian and St. Christopher are shown smaller, to either side. On top of these plague-saints are depictions of the Virgin and Child, St. John the Baptist and John the Evangelist. Due to the repetition of the name “John,” Sts. John the Baptist and John the Evangelist are most likely included to indicate the donor’s name, because neither saint has a specific association with the plague.

In addition to the “first-tier” plague saints, St. Christopher is also associated with the “third-tier” plague saint, Vincent Ferrer. In the Altarpiece of St. Vincent Ferrer, Vincent is shown as the central figure, flanked by Sts. Christopher and Sebastian (image below). St. Vincent Ferrer is in the center because the altarpiece is named after him, not because he is the most powerful plague saint. Each of the saints depicted serve a different function related to the plague, Sebastian as the original plague saint, Christopher’s daily protection against death, and Vincent Ferrer’s Dominican connections and plague-related treatise. Thus, they support one another and comforted the viewer, who at once invoked three powerful plague intercessors.

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