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

Pestilence & Prayer: Categorization of Plague Saints (3)

Pestilence & Prayer: Categorization of Plague Saints (3)

This was actually the most exciting part of my thesis because I am wholly responsible for the invention of this categorization. I had done so much research and realized that most papers discussed certain saints as intercessors for the plague but no one had ever though to chart why certain saints popped up more than others and to create a grouping for them. Way to go 21 year old me! You rock!


P.S. I want want to read the previous installment of my thesis click HERE.

This thesis categorizes plague saints into three broad groups: “first-, second-, and third-tier.” The “first-tier” saints are the two universally acknowledged plague saints: Sebastian and Roch. They have the closest association to pestilence and they also appear in the majority of plague-themed artworks. The “second-tier” plague saints, Christopher, Cosmas and Damian, Nicholas of Tolentino, Gregory the Great, and Bernardino of Siena, are also well known saintly intercessors, but their relationship with the plague varies throughout the centuries. Although there is a large collection of artistic and literary evidence to support their association with the plague, the “second-tier” saints are generally not acknowledged as strictly plague saints in most modern scholarship. The “first- and second-tier” plague saints are also separated into two categories:

  1. those who symbolically thwarted the plague due to their plague-arrow symbology present in their martyrdoms, including Sts. Sebastian, Christopher, and Cosmas and Damian, discussed in Chapter I
  2. those who directly healed the plague, including Sts. Roch, Nicholas of Tolentino, Gregory the Great, and Bernardino of Siena, discussed in Chapter II.

The last category is the “third-tier” plague saints and they are discussed in Chapter III. The “third-tier” saints are directly associated with outbreaks of the plague but they do not fall into the categorization proposed for the “first- and second-tier” plague saints: arrows in their martyrdom like Sebastian or direct healing like Roch. For a saint to be considered a “third-tier” plague saint, their connection must not be connected to their duty as a patron saint of a town, city, or individual. The “third-tier” plague saints included in this thesis are Fabian, Vincent Ferrer, and Peter Martyr.

In my thesis, I will highlight the various “first- second-, and tired-tier” plague saints in their respective sections. Although the saints in these sections share iconographic characteristics, I will treat each saint as an individual entry, highlighting important aspects of their vitas or lives and analyzing a selection of plague-themed artwork. After the “first- and second-tier” saints, I will highlight a selection of “third-tier” saints.

Next thesis blog post: Pestilence & Prayer: Arrows & Plague (4)


  • Boeckl, Christine, M. “Giorgio Vasari’s San Rocco Altarpiece: Tradition and Innovation in Plague Iconography.” Artibus et Historiae, vol. 22, no. 43 (2001).
  • Ross, Leslie. Medieval Art: A Topical Dictionary. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group. Inc., 1996.
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