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Arts: Enlightener of the epidemic

14 August 2020

St Roch’s day falls on the 16th. Nicholas Cranfield explores the saint’s legacy


Peter Paul Rubens, Christ Appointing Saint Roch as Patron Saint of the Plague Victims (1623-26), which is part of an altarpiece in St Martin’s Collegiate Church, Aalst, in Belgium

Peter Paul Rubens, Christ Appointing Saint Roch as Patron Saint of the Plague Victims (1623-26), which is part of an altarpiece in St Martin’s C...

LEAVING behind him a wealthy family in 14th-century Montpellier, Roch journeyed to Italy as a mendicant pilgrim. There, he healed those who were afflicted by the ravage of a bubonic plague in the name of the cross. He travelled between Cesena, Rome, Mantua, Modena, Parma, and other cities. No ecclesiastic barred him from ministering.

Succumbing to the plague himself in Piacenza, he withdrew to a forest, expecting to die. He was succoured by a local nobleman’s hound, who brought the ailing man scraps of bread. After he recovered, he returned to Montpellier, where his family failed to recognise the ragged beggar as their kith and kin. Rather than claim his identity, he died five years later in prison on 16 August; he was just 32 years old.

During the Council of Constance that met on Bodensee in 1414, plague broke out. The Conciliar Fathers ordered prayers and processions in honour of the saint, and the plague immediately ended. Thereafter, his popular cult as a saint to be invoked against plagues spread rapidly. In art, he is immediately recognisable, baring his thigh to reveal a bubonic-plague wound, with his faithful attendant dog.

A guild (Scuola) was established in Venice in 1478 to care for the sick under St Roch’s patronage. The Vita Sancti Rochi, written pseudonymously by Francisco Diedo, was published at the same time. Seven years later, the relics of the saint were brought from Germany to Venice.

Initially, the confraternity had met in one of the chapels of the Frari church, but, after a surge in donations with the plague of 1515, the guild established their own building, which finally was opened in 1560.

Four years later, the guild elders ran a competition for a central ceiling painting of the glorification of St Roch. This was won by Jacopo Rubusti, called Tintoretto (1519-96). That initial commission (which he won by some sharp practice, submitting a completed painting as a gift to the Doge and Senate rather than offering a sketch as asked) led Tintoretto to decorate the Scuola’s building and the church as well.

When John Ruskin visited the church in September 1845, he was outraged that a group of 18 otherwise well-behaved German tourists, after glancing at the Tintoretto painting The Pool of Bethesda (of which Ruskin, in fact, held a low opinion), ignored all the rest. In San Rocco, in the hospital, Ruskin found a very noble picture, albeit “a brown study of diseased limbs in a close room”.

And it is, of course, the “brown study” that makes the paintings of the “Little Dyer” so memorable. To understand his art fully, one needs to visit the Scuola.

With the abundance of light from the Lagoon, it is easier to associate Venetian painting with colour — one only has to think of Titian and Veronese and, later, of Sebastiano Ricci, Canaletto, and the Tiepolos — but Tintoretto offers a range of brown, grey, and black which, when shot through with colours, lets him ground his paintings in a completely different way, without reference to perspective and accurate draughtsmanship.

The paintings for the Scuola are in marked contrast to his largest work, the surviving mural decoration in the Doge’s Palace of paradise, but here the intensity of his restricted colour palette sets his achievement apart.AlamySaint Roch by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, now in the Minneapolis Insti­tute of Arts, “arguably one of the most dejected paintings of any saint”

It was not until the reign of Pope Urban VIII (1623-44) that an ecclesiastical office for St Roch was approved for the anniversary of his death, 16 August. In 1623, the 46-year-old Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens was commissioned by the Brotherhood of St Roch in Aalst for an altarpiece for the guild in the Church of St Martin.

It is one of the few of Rubens’s still in their original setting, with its 1626 retable. The several surviving painted sketches for it show how Rubens developed his ideas alongside the commission. As Willibald Sauerländer, in his invaluable book Der Katholische Rubens (2011, English translation, 2014), points out, Rubens was well aware of the cultus from his own parish of Sint Jakob in Antwerp.

Below the arch of a stone bridge, seven men and women, who lie on infected straw pallets, cry out for healing, while Roch kneels above in prayer, his bared right thigh displaying his bubonic-plague wound. He is holding his pilgrim hat and staff in his right hand, and is at the centre of the altarpiece. His faithful hound is beside him.

The scene is drawn from prison as the Risen Lord burst into the presence of the dying man to designate him as patron saint for those with the pest. Helpfully, an angel holds up the charge sheet, “Eris in Peste Patronus.” The members of the confraternity would here have invoked, “Hail, thou wise physician and conqueror of the plague, may thou enlighten the epidemic in our limbs and be our intercessor, O Roch, with the King of Glory.”

A century later, the Venetian G. B. Tiepolo (1696-1770) painted arguably one of the most dejected paintings of any saint in the canon (c.1730-35). In a small oil painting (44 × 33cm), now in the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the exhausted young saint rests on a rock, staring down towards the ground almost lifelessly. Despite his seeming youth, his ravaged body is a far cry from the virility of the man Christ entrusted with a Brotherhood’s patronage in the South Netherlands.

His left hand has caught up his tunic to expose his bared thigh, and he has taken off his hat, revealing his dishevelled and unkempt hair. Next to him he has placed his staff against a stone ledge, but, although he is holding a bread roll in his right hand, it does not look as if he will have the energy to eat or to resume his journey.

Tiepolo has cleverly suggested hints of his past wealth, as the blue tunic is caught at the neck with a red ribbon, and his collar has the appearance of being freshly laundered; but there is no mistaking his doleful abandonment and regret.

As an image of despondency in the face of an epidemic, of the pilgrim as a Man of Sorrows, it is pitiable without being at all pitying. As a passage in the life of one who surrendered his earthly privilege to serve the outcast and the poor, and to identify with them to the point of his own suffering, it offers a poetic contemplation in our own strange days.

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