A saint, generally, is a holy person, while a patron saint is a holy figure associated with an issue/problem, and you’d pray to God through that saint to resolve the issue. Saints and patron saints aren’t worshipped themselves, but their status as close to God allows the saints to be respected and venerated by their followers. Patron saints essentially have the power to make sure your issue goes through to the Big Guy himself. There are patron saints for everything you’d want to fix: saints of finding lost objects, saints of toothaches, saints of poetry…the list goes on. But during the Middle Ages, the age of the Black Plague, the people turned to saints to cure disease.
Probably the most famous of the disease patron saint is the saint of the most famous disease of the Middle Ages: St. Roch, patron saint of the Black Death. Roch himself lived in the 13th century CE and is thought to have been born in France. From an early stage in his pilgrimage to Italy, he dedicated himself to helping the victims of the plague. Specifically treating the ravaged areas around Rome, he eventually contracted plague himself, but miraculously recovered, continuing to serve the victims of the Black Death. Though he eventually died in a prison, Saint Roch was honored for his actions. Canonized by popular opinion, he is a popular saint for general infections and pestilence.
St. Damien of Molokai
A more modern illness saint is St. Damien, who lived in the mid to late 19th century. Like Roch, he dedicated his life to the victims of a disease and ended up catching the sickness in the process. He became a leper in the service of lepers in Hawaii. Skin rotting and falling off, St. Damien died as a result of the disease, and is now invoked as the patron saint against leprosy. Damien was canonized as a saint in 2009.
St. Anthony Abbot
Some disease names are even actually references to saints. A decently common illness during the middle ages was ergotism, a poisoning of the body caused by a fungus sometimes found in rye. During the medieval era, however, ergotism was called Saint Anthony’s Fire, due to the painful patches of dying skin it caused. Interestingly enough, Saint Anthony himself originally had nothing to do with the disease. Saint Anthony’s Fire was so named because the monks of Saint Anthony were well-known for treating and actually diminishing ergotism. Though Saint Anthony is a patron saint of public speaking, his followers helped victims of the ergot poisoning epidemic and earned the illness its nickname, showing the mixed roles that patron saints and their followers can play in healing.
In their own way, patron saints were sort of like indirect doctors; tons of accounts of miraculous healing after prayer through a saint are out there. How much of that is true, we can’t be sure, but the people of the Middle Ages trusted the idea of healing through faith so much that most “hospitals” were churches devoted to a saint. A place treating Saint Anthony’s Fire would likely be devoted to Saint Anthony himself, and its patients could receive healing by praying to him by his association with the disease. One such St. Anthony “clinic” is featured in AP Art History Curriculum: The Isenheim Altarpiece which is an opening cabinet of artwork that features panels of the saints and a depiction of Jesus himself with what looks like a skin disease on the cross. Though the Isenheim Altarpiece was made a little after the medieval period ended, the infected Jesus and saints shows that people turned to saints for not only spiritual and emotional healing, but also for someone to relate to.
- “Saint Damien of Molokai.” Catholic Online. Accessed March 4, 2016. www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=2817
- Cleary, Gregory. “St. Roch.” Catholic Encyclopedia. Accessed March 4, 2016. www.newadvent.org/cathen/13100c.htm
- Boeckl, Christine M. Images of Plague and Pestilence. Kirksville: Truman State University Press, 2000.