03. Early Europe & Colonial Americas, Art & Humanities

Pestilence & Prayer: The Vita of St. Nicholas of Tolentino (14)

Pestilence & Prayer: The Vita of St. Nicholas of Tolentino (14)

See previous thesis blog post: Pestilence & Prayer: St. Roch in Art (13)

St. Roch was not the only plague-healer saint that was invoked during the outbreaks of the plague. I will now discuss the “second-tier” saints underneath him: Nicholas of Tolentino, Gregory the Great, and Bernardino of Siena.

St. Nicholas was born near Fermo, Italy in 1245; he later joined the Augustinian Order and devoted his life to preaching. He is known as Nicholas of Tolentino because he settled at Tolentino, where he died in 1305. Although Nicholas healed the sick, there were no extraordinary healing miracles or stories in his Vita. Although he was not canonized until 1446, St. Nicholas was a widely venerated saintly healer and he was not associated with the plague until 150 years later with the first Tuscan plague altarpieces created during the fifteenth century. Although during his life and canonization there is no connection to Nicholas and plague (because he lived before 1348 and during no other plague outbreak), Nicholas was believed to help souls exit of Purgatory and enter into Heaven. This heavenly intercession was relevant to the plague because it caused so much widespread death. Thus, it is through St. Nicholas’ Purgatory association and his promotion through his confraternity that he became related to the plague. In art, Nicholas is depicted wearing the black habit of his order, often holding a crucifix intertwined with a lily*.

*Note: Lilies are symbols of purity and virginity in saints

St. Nicholas was attributed with ending an outbreak in Pisa first recorded in 1449. The altarpiece, St. Nicholas of Tolentino saves Pisa from the plague (above), was created and carried in regular procession to thank Nicholas for his intervention.  The altarpiece was kept in the oratory of S. Maria della Spina, under the care of the Pisan Commune, and so it is a civic rather than an Augustinian commission. This altarpiece represents a new iconography for St. Nicholas; in which the commission is not of his Vita, but of a specific action in which Nicholas is towering protectively over a miniature of the city of Pisa, grasping a bunch of plague-arrows. Images of an interceding saint provide human suffering distance from an often-malicious divinity; Nicholas stands directly between devious celestial beings and the helpless city.

*Note: The Augustinian Order encouraged his veneration in the wake of the plague. By the late fifteenth century, his plague cult had spread to northern Italy.

Next thesis blog post: Pestilence & Prayer: St. Nicholas of Tolentino in Art (15)

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