03. Early Europe & Colonial Americas, Art & Humanities

Pestilence & Prayer: Religion Introduction (2)

Pestilence & Prayer: Religion Introduction (2)

This is the second (of many!) installments of my serialized undergraduate thesis: “Pestilence and Prayer: Saints and the Art of the Plague in Italy from 1370 – 1600.” HERE is the first blog post introducing my topic.


Religion already played an important role in the everyday lives of medieval peoples, and the plague exacerbated the role of religion. Christianity held a distinctive view on illness and healing: suffering was the consequence of human sin and since God was Lord, disease could be both natural and divine. Additionally, epidemics were not considered “diseases of the soul,” but rather, community experiences that struck both the guilty and innocent. Therefore, communal religious practices, such as processions and festivals, could theoretically combat the pestilential waves. The veneration of saints was an important aspect of the communal medieval Catholic Church. Saints are sacred men and women decreed to be closer to God than the average person due to their holy actions in life and miracles after death. Saints were not simply interchangeable; medieval people preferred certain saints to others for a particular “specialty,” these saints are known as patron saints. Certain environmental climates would increase the veneration of these patron saints. The recurring epidemics would have been a considerable factor to increase the veneration of saints particularly associated with the plague and death.

Saint imagery is a positive reaction against the plague because people used it to focus their devotions and prayers of hope of deliverance. Saints were invoked as plague intercessors during plague epidemics before the Black Death, but visual plague iconography did not exist before its march across Europe in 1348. This emergence of visual plague iconography may be due to the fact that no other plague outbreak in history caused the same level of destruction as Black Death. The eventual formation of specific iconography drew largely on already existing religious subjects, such as the Madonnas of Mercy, and classical myth intermingled with Judeo-Christian ideology.

Benedetto Bonfigli, Madonna della Misericordia, 1464, Chiesa del Gonfalone, Perugia.

The saints chosen as plague intercessors had specific associations with plague symbolism. Most of the saints’ iconography was developed from stories of the saints’ lives, such as Jacobus de Voragine’s The Golden Legend written in 1266 and expanded upon over the decades. It is through The Golden Legend that medieval people learned about the lives of the saints and through these stories they found moral and religious guidance. The Golden Legend was a medieval “bestseller” but fell out of favor in the later Renaissance and Early Modern period with the Council of Trent and succeeding Counter-Reformation. The iconography of saints is developed from the stories in The Golden Legend and it is through art that people recalled the tales they were told. This iconography plays an important role in their categorization as plague saints.

Next thesis blog post: Pestilence & Prayer: Categorization of Plague Saints (3)


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