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Themes in art: St Roch
Church of San Rocco, Venice
The legend of St Roch begins in Montpellier (on the south coast of France) in the late 13th century with the birth of a boy bearing a cross-shaped birthmark on his left shoulder, this marking him out as being blessed by God.
As a young man he set off on pilgrimage to Rome, but on his journey he came to a town in Italy that was stricken by plague. He found that he had the gift of healing but also became a victim of the disease himself. However, when wandering outside the town he was found by a dog that took care of him, bringing him bread every day and healing him by licking his wounds.
When he got home to Montpellier he was not recognised by his friends and family because of the ravages of the disease, and was thrown into prison for being an imposter. When he died, still in prison, a tablet of stone was found in his cell on which was a statement to the effect that anyone who prayed for his soul would be protected against the plague.
At a later date, Roch’s remains were stolen and taken to Venice, where they lie today in the church of San Rocco.
St Roch is the patron saint of dogs, invalids, bachelors and much else besides. In recent years AIDS has been added to his portfolio. His feast day is 16th August.
Statue of St Roch in Hungary
As a subject for art, St Roch is usually shown in the company of a dog, sometimes with a loaf of bread in its mouth, and he is showing somebody the mark he bears of the plague, namely a bubo on his upper thigh. At a time when bubonic plague was rampant in Europe, these images were very significant to people of all classes, because the plague spared no-one. Pictures and statues of a saint who had cured others of the disease, and survived it himself, were therefore a cause of hope.
However, it has been remarked that several artists overplayed their hand somewhat by giving Roch not only the buboes of bubonic plague but also the leg rashes and bumps that are associated with septicaemic plague, from which recovery was exceptionally rare.
Another typical feature of artworks featuring St Roch is the pilgrim’s staff he carries, this being a reminder that Roch was on a pilgrimage when his encounter with the plague took place.
However, one aspect of the legend that is not represented in art is the facial disfigurement that caused him not to be recognised. The Roch we are shown is generally smooth-skinned and, one would assume, instantly recognisable to anyone who had known him only a few months previously. It would seem that saints can be crippled or otherwise handicapped, but, if young, must never be ugly.
Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti, 1518-1594) had a particular association with St Roch, because he was commissioned to decorate the church of San Rocco in Venice and also the neighbouring Scuola (Brotherhood) di San Rocco, a building dedicated to caring for plague victims.
For the latter, the four leading painters in the city were invited to compete for the honour of painting the round centerpiece of the main ceiling, by producing designs which would then be considered by the Brotherhood’s committee before the winner was given the commission. While the other three painters went away to work on their designs, Tintoretto measured the space in question, painted a canvas in double-quick time, and stuck the result in place. Naturally, the other artists were furious, and the head of the Brotherhood angrily enquired why Tintoretto had broken the rules. All he could reply was that that was how he worked. If the Brotherhood were not happy, he would make a free gift of the painting. As the Brotherhood’s policy was never to reject a gift, they had no choice but to accept, and so Tintoretto’s “San Rocco received into Heaven” (otherwise titled “The apotheosis of St Roch”) is still there to this day.
This is the painting shown above. In it, there is no sign of Roch's ailment, as he ascends to Heaven perfect in body and soul. Likewise there is no sign of the dog, because Heaven is only for those beings cast in God's image. The only link to the legend is Roch's pilgrim staff, held by a figure on the right of the picture.
Tintoretto also painted, for the church of San Rocco, “St Roch presented to the Pope”, “St Roch taken to prison”, “St Roch curing the plague victims”, “St Roch comforted by an angel”, “St Roch in solitude” and “St Roch healing the animals”.
St Roch Asking the Virgin Mary to Heal Victims of the Plague
Works by other artists
A typical painting is that by Parmigianino (Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola, 1503-1540), which shows St Roch, accompanied by dog and bubo, healing a sufferer.
St Roch is sometimes shown alongside other figures such as the Madonna and Child, as he is begging for their help on behalf of plague victims. An early example is by Giorgione (1470-1510), which also incorporates an image of St Anthony, and there is a much later one by Jacques Louis David (1748-1825), who is normally associated with depictions of classical subjects and the glories of the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte.
In David’s “St Roch and the Virgin” (see above) he is shown as the intercessor between the plague victims at the foot of the rock on which the Virgin sits, and the Madonna and Child. Although Roch is shown with the pilgrim clothes and staff, and the dog’s head can just be seen, we are spared the bubo this time.
Many other artists have portrayed St Roch in various guises, a short list of these artists being: Giuseppe Angeli, Carlo Crivelli, Giambattista Pittoni, Bernardo Strozzi, Bartolomeo Vivarini and Girolamo Pellegrini.
Portrayals of saints and miracles have gone out of fashion over recent centuries, although images of suffering have not. With the addition of AIDS to St Roch’s list of responsibilities, perhaps it is time for a modern artist to revive the tradition and produce a new take on an old legend.