03. Early Europe & Colonial Americas, Art & Humanities

Pestilence & Prayer: St. Roch in Art (13)

Pestilence & Prayer: St. Roch in Art (13)

See previous thesis blog post: Pestilence & Prayer: Vita of St. Roch (12)

Although, St. Roch is not mentioned until the fifteenth century, and is thus a late addition to the pantheon of saints, his cult quickly gained widespread reputation in connection to the plague. The earliest recorded confraternity devoted to the saint is in Clermont l’Hérault in 1410, started by Bishop Jean de Lavergne. In Louis Marshall’s article “Confraternity and Community: Mobilizing the Sacred in Times of Plague,” confraternities are defined as “religious organizations that encouraged devotion and promoted charity among the laity.” During the plague outbreaks, many confraternities were formed in honor of St. Roch. The competition for St. Roch in confraternities was so great that in 1485, the Venetians stole his remains from Montpellier and founded the Scuola di San Rocco with their new relic. In Italy, confraternities were called a scuola and they denoted an association to a guild.

The Scuola di San Rocco stole St. Roch’s relic because in 1484 Venice underwent a severe outbreak of the plague and it was believed that his relics could protect the city from another wave. Relics were an important aspect of medieval worship because it was believed that by being in close proximity to an object or the body of a saint could increase the power of prayer. The interior of the Scuola is decorated with artworks painted by Tintoretto executed between 1564 and 1587 and other mediums and artists; many of the works of art include St. Roch. One sculpture of St. Roch is by Campagna Gerolmo in 1587 (image above). St. Roch is dressed as a Medieval pilgrim, described in the Acta Breviora as:

scarlet garment and inexpensive cloak, round wrap, and not accompanied by anyone, his head covered by a cap, a leather knapsack hanging from his shoulder, [and] a pilgrim’s staff placed in his right hand.

Although St. Roch could easily be confused with other pilgrim saints, such as St. James, he is distinguished from them because he shows the viewer his femoral bubo or indicates on his thigh where he was struck with the plague. St. Roch is also sometimes depicted with an angel and/or a dog. The dog recalls the nobleman’s dog that fed Roch to keep him alive and the angel often heals his plague bubo.

An example of St. Roch’s iconography in art is a page from the Prayerbook for Joanna of Ghistelles (image above). In this image, St. Roch is in his typical pilgrim’s outfit and an angel lifts his cloak to show a plague bubo on his right thigh, which a dog sits patiently by his side with a piece of bread in his mouth. This image combines two different parts of Roch’s Vita: the first is his isolation in the forest with the dog and the second is when God healed his infection, indicated by the angel. Even with no text, the story of St. Roch’s life, death, and protection is conveyed.

*Note: The image of the angel healing St. Roch’s recalls a scene from the Aeneid, in which Doctor Japyx removes an arrow from Aeneas’s leg. The angel takes the place of the doctor, kneeling by the patient and treating his wound. Although the image is highly Christianized, it still evokes the ancient tradition of plague-arrow symbology and iconography.

Numerous chapels, altarpieces, and works of art were dedicated to Roch. St. Roch is displayed prominently in a painting commissioned by the confraternity of Arezzo commemorating a wave of the epidemic that swept through the town in 1477 (image above). This painting is titled Saint Roch interceding with Christ on behalf of Arezzo. The title clearly displays the purpose of the painting: to plead with God to end the plague. St. Roch kneels in the foreground, prominently displaying a bare thigh where it is understood that a “deadly dart” struck him. He is the largest and most prominent character in the image. In the distance angels fly over a walled city, torturing people with plague arrows as Christ gazes down detached. By St. Roch’s gaze up at Christ, it is understood that he is asking Christ to end the plague. The contemporary worshipers knew that it is only through God’s power that miracles happen.

Roch also appears with other plague saints in plague sacra conversazione. In Saints Nicholas of Tolentino, Roch, Sebastian, and Bernardino of Siena, with Kneeling Donors all the saints are shown of identical size and prominence, suggesting that each of them were equally important to the donors who invoked them (image above). As stated in Chapter I, the wave of pestilence that spurred the donors to commission this work is artistically rendered in the background. St. Roch and the “second-tier” saints Nicholas of Tolentino and Bernardino of Siena are both categorized as healer saints (they will appear in future thesis blog post installments). St. Roch was invoked with St. Sebastian in 69% of the invocations with the plague from the twelfth to seventeenth century, and he became the primary saint from the sixteenth century on.

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

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