Saint Rosalie and the Plague

What exactly would you do if you were stuck in quarantine?

That is a real question that many of us are facing. While my county hasn’t been hit yet, I am not too far away from Seattle. And so, in between teaching my very little children the importance of hand washing, I’ve been looking at the art of those struck by plague many centuries ago to see how they coped with deadly sickness lingering on the horizon.

What surprises me? The amount of hope and beauty in their art. Yes, it was probably dismal at times. You know the artwork that I featured yesterday, by Titian? Well, there is speculation that Titian died from the plague, since he was feverish when he died. And yet, though he lived while the plague was a looming threat, that artwork was exquisite.

But his was not the only one who made such exquisite artwork during those trying times! In fact, here is an artwork that was made while the artist was trapped in Palermo, Sicily when the city was quarantined because of an outbreak of plague.

Saint Rosalie Interceding for the Plague-stricken of Palermo, by Anthony van Dyck, c. 1624. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York, United States.
Saint Rosalie Interceding for the Plague-stricken of Palermo, by Anthony van Dyck, c. 1624. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York, United States.

If you looked at this painting and thought to yourself, “Is this… a picture of the Assumption?” then you would be almost correct! In fact, it is based on an image of the Assumption that Anthony van Dyck made a study for not too long before this painting. However! This is not a picture of the Assumption.

Instead, it’s a picture of Saint Rosalie.

St. Rosalie is shown being held aloft by angels with her hands outstretched in an intercessory manner as she gestures downwards, towards Palermo which can be seen in the distance. Then, just in case it is not clear enough who this saint is and what she is praying for, one angel holds a black skull, a symbol of Black Death, while another angel points to it.

So, what is the story behind this painting?

As the story goes, St. Rosalie who was born around 1130 in Sicily. She was a lady who ran to become a hermit and spend her life contemplating Our Lord. She lived in a cave near Palermo, where she wrote on the cave wall: “I, Rosalia, daughter of Sinibald, Lord of Roses, and Quisquina, have taken the resolution to live in this cave for the love of my Lord, Jesus Christ.”

She was not known though… until 1624, when a plague ravaged Palermo, Italy.

As the legend goes, she appeared in a dream to first a sick woman and then a hunter. In these dreams, she told them who she was and told them where to find her remains. Then she told them that, after they found her remains, that they should process around the city of Palermo with her remains.

When the hunter followed her instructions, he found her remains at a cave, just as described, and found the words written on the cave. Then, they took the remains and processed around the city three times, just as she had ordered. After the third procession, the plague ceased… in Palermo, at least.

And so, trapped within its walls due to quarantine, Anthony van Dyck used his artistic mind to honor the saint through his art!

Later, he would continue to paint other pictures of Saint Rosalie. Here’s another one he made!

Madonna and Child, with Saints Rosalie, Peter, and Paul, by Anthony van Dyck, c. 1629. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.
Madonna and Child, with Saints Rosalie, Peter, and Paul, by Anthony van Dyck, c. 1629. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.

In this case, she bows to the Infant Jesus, who is being held by Mary, and offers them a skull and some lilies, with Saint Peter (depicted with the keys) and Saint Paul (depicted with a sword and some books) looking onward at the gesture. It was made five years after the quarantine took place — so clearly, St. Rosalie made an impression on Anthony van Dyck.

And so now?

We are facing yet another threat… though this time, not through the plague but through another disease that is spreading. Once again, talks of quarantine have come up in international discourse and our nations are scrambling to come up with solutions to a spread of an illness that we are still trying to learn more about.

As we continue to take care of those who are already sick, develop ways to prevent the further spread of the illness, and find a cure, may Saint Rosalie continue to pray for us!

Karina Tabone

Karina Tabone is a wife, mother of four, author, blogger, and lover of Christian artwork. She's the author of the Illustrated Rosary series, which pairs every prayer of the Rosary with beautiful religious artwork. She likes also milkshakes, sunshine, and mystery novels. Follow her on Twitter at @illustr_prayer.

3 thoughts on “Saint Rosalie and the Plague

    • March 8, 2020 at 6:57 pm
      Permalink

      Inspiring, and I marvel how art can say so much and so deep in different ways to different people. Thanks for your research.

      Reply

Leave a Reply