03. Early Europe & Colonial Americas, Art & Humanities

Pestilence & Prayer: St. Nicholas of Tolentino in Art (15)

Pestilence & Prayer: St. Nicholas of Tolentino in Art (15)

See previous thesis blog post: Pestilence & Prayer: The Vita of St. Nicholas of Tolentino (14)

Two other altarpieces also include Nicholas exclusively protecting Tuscan cities from the plague: St. Nicholas of Tolentino saves Empoli from the plague by Bicci di Lorenzo and St. Nicholas Saving Florence from the plague by Giovanni Paolo. In the panel St. Nicholas of Tolentino saves Empoli Christ clearly aims the arrows at the unsuspecting city (below). St. Nicholas does not acknowledge Christ, but simply acts of his own accord, thwarting the divine wrath. He catches the arrows in his left hand, and holds his iconic lily flower in his right.

On the other hand, in St. Nicholas Saving Florence a death scene is depicted (above). In the foreground a man carries a coffin into a house, where presumably someone has just died of the plague. Citizens appear fearful of leaving the protection of their homes to venture out into the city due to the widespread death, but in the background, a priest is leading a procession with candles and votive offerings to encourage God to cease the widespread death. St. Nicholas protectively floats above the cityscape holding his hand out in blessing. In contrast to the previous images, there are no celestial beings shooting arrows, but the cause of the death is clear. St. Nicholas Saving Florence is dated 1456, a year devastated by epidemic.

St. Nicholas of Tolentino’s intercession with epidemics in Tuscany is due to the Augustinian Order’s powerful support. They locally fostered his cult for many decades by encouraging local confraternities and promoting his intercession as a powerful thaumaturge. Pisa was the providential seat of the Augustinian Order, and thus a fitting place to promote a powerful saint of the Order. Louise Marshall suggests in her Ph.D. dissertation, “‘Waiting on the Will of the Lord:’ the imagery of the plague,” that Nicholas never gained widespread recognition outside his Order.

This image was originally misattributed as Nicholas performing a resurrection due to the prominent coffin but it actually represents his intervention on the behalf of a plague-stricken city.

St. Nicholas of Tolentino was also included in artwork not associated with his Order. One example of St. Nicholas in art outside of his order is Saints Nicholas of Tolentino, Roch, Sebastian, and Bernardino of Siena, with Kneeling Donors (first image above). Here he appears here the same size as his “first-tier” plague saint companions: Roch and Sebastian. Neither St. Roch, Sebastian, nor Bernardino of Siena have any relation to the Augustinian Order, and they are each important plague saints. Thus this painting is related to the cessation of the plague, not connected to the Order. Another image in which St. Nicholas appears as a prominent plague saint, comparable to a “first-tier” saint, is the Il Gonfalone Madonna delle Grazie (second image above). Here, he appears as the only other companion to St. Sebastian. St. Nicholas of Tolentino and St. Sebastian are assisting the Virgin as she protects the kneeling population underneath her mantle. Nicholas’ inclusion in these images is important because it demonstrates that he is more than a celebrated Augustinian Friar, he is a highly sought out plague intercessor.

Next thesis blog post: Pestilence & Prayer: Vita of St. Bernardino of Siena (16)

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