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St. Roch: The Original MVP

Main Image: 'St Roch healing the Sick' Annibale Carracci | Image credit: Artstor
Main Image: 'St Roch healing the Sick' Annibale Carracci | Image credit: Artstor

I continue to reel from the sex doll deficit announced last week by The Sun. Its full headline shouting: ‘DOLL OUT: Sex doll shortage for UK and US customers as coronavirus shuts factories and halts production in China.’ Does this mean sex dolls are being delivered to other countries? Are we to assume the penchant is particular to the English speaking world? Do the Chinese hate us? I have ever to read the article. Should the answer lie in there somewhere, DM me. Or, actually, don’t. Another way to join my lungs in living on the edge. Hopefully the production turnaround will match that of COVID-19, 12 weeks being BoJo’s latest slogan. At which point we can all electively stay home and wank off into a piece of plastic constructed by underpaid, virus recovered hands (wash your dolls people). All the while attempting to forget the ‘un-blitz’ spirit of the last few months, almost exclusively triggered by the requirement to sit still, and stuff our faces with Aldi’s ‘From the Freezer Prawn and White Wine Salmon Wellington’. The war generation didn’t know how lucky they had it.

Figure 1: St Roch, Giambattista Tiepolo | Image credit: Artstor

And now the natural segue into the life of St. Roch. Another man who didn’t know how lucky he had it: St. Roch was around in the fourteenth century, and is best known for his association with the plague. As such, he is the first in a series of death and disease related posts this fine blog aims to release.

To cheer the shit out of the three people who read it.

According to the Golden Legend, and some other works whose titles escape me, St. R was born in Montpellier, to a rich, aristocratic family. As seems to be en flick with Catholic saints, his mum claimed to have been barren. Yet, St. R was nonetheless, born. It wasn’t all silk and luxury horses in his fancy pants household, however. For one thing, as a sign of gratitude to God for giving her a son, his mum would often fast, which meant breastfeeding was a no-go. Allegedly, R supported her in this weight-watchers-medieval-edition diet regimen, by only requesting to be fed on ‘cheat’ days. Although how much choice he had in the matter seems debatable.

Eventually, as people are wont to do, St. R’s parents died. At this point – take note David Geffen – R decided to donate all their bling to the poor and set about helping the ill and dying. This turned out to be a savvy career choice, since he could cure people just by tapping them with the cross.

Well, all people except for himself. As he found out one day while walking around Piacenza by getting the plague.

The locals got annoyed, and quickly forgetting all his do-gooddery, they exiled him. Poor R waddled off into the woods on his own, where he lived in a little shack.

Figure 2: St Roch fed by a dog, Paolo Farinati attr. | Image credit: The British Museum, London

He soon started to get visitors though: For starters, a local landlord’s dog took pity on him and brought him food. God nudged some angels to pop over and say hi. And, of course, the moment people started getting ill, they thought it worth breaking his social distancing.

Being a saint and all (a future one anyway) R eventually recovered. During a celestial visit, the angels told him he ought to go back to Montpellier once he returned to good health. Which is exactly what he did.

Alas, while the plague might not have killed him, small town sharp tongues did. In Montpellier, he was accused of being a spy, and soon found himself in prison.

Then dead.

Figure 3: Tomb of St. Roch, Pietro Bon | Image credit: Wikipedia

For our art historical purposes, St. R became the MVP in paintings after the Black Death, particularly the Italian epidemic of the late fifteenth century. This was the time in which the plague votive became a bestseller; a sort of talisman for warding off the disease, in which R came to be depicted as a central figure. Such votives were often commissioned by ecclesiastical, secular, or local government bodies, as a sort of ‘soz God, please make it stop’. A kinder alternative to hoarding bog roll if you will. R soon came to be widely venerated throughout Italy, particularly in Venice, where his body was brought in 1485. There it still remains, in the Church of San Rocco, adjacent to the related Scuola (Fig. 3).

Figure 4: Apotheosis of St Roch, Jacopo Tintoretto | Image credit: Wikipedia

Side note: Despite its namesake, the Tintorettos which decorate the Scuola are predominantly dedicated to the life of Christ. There is, however, one image which represents St. Roch, that of his apotheosis, found on the ceiling of the Sala dell’Albergo (Fig. 4). 

Figure 5: St. Rochus altarpiece, Peter Paul Rubens | Image credit: Wikipedia

St. R is most recognisable in paintings throughout the early modern period by his lifted dress folds, which reveal a plague bubo, (yes, a word), most often found on his thigh, rather close to his nunah (Fig. 1). He is usually accompanied by a dog, representative of the animal that brought him food during his woody sojourn (Fig. 2). In some paintings the visiting angels are also present, either poking at his sore, or simply floating around. Occasionally we see him in his pre (sort of) self-isolation days, healing the sick. In other instances he is shown in scenes taken from the end of his life, in prison, or ascending to heaven. The most common depictions have him: surrounded by plague victims, as in this somewhat bloodcurdling example by Rubens (Fig. 5); in the forest during his exile; or in the usual ‘standing saint’ role in Holy Family and co. pics.

Figure 6: Three Saints: Roch, Anthony Abbot, and Lucy, Cima da Conegliano | Image credit: Metropolitan Museum, New York

One example from the final category on which I’m particularly keen (mainly because I like the artist, and it also depicts St. Lucy, who is awesome), is Cima’s Three Saints, (c. 1513) now at the Met in New York (Fig. 6). The work had previously been owned by Empress Josephine Bonaparte, when it was thought to have been by Giovanni Bellini. The central positioning of St. A makes it seem likely that it was painted for the Hospital Brothers of St. Anthony. For anyone interested, the brotherhood ministered to the sick, to plague victims, and to those afflicted with a nasty disease now known as ergotism, then by the catchier name of St. Anthony’s Fire, widespread in the Middle Ages.

Figure 7: The Life of St. Roch, after Titian | Image credit: British Museum, London

The depiction of St. Roch in art was not confined to painting. He can be found in various media all throughout Europe during the Renaissance and beyond. But, as my knowledge of art outside of Italy, particularly outside of early modern Venice, is a bit patchy, we’ll end within my comfort zone: a print after Titian showing The Life of St. Roch (Fig. 7). According to Matthias Wivel, Titian is noted as a member of the chapter brethren of the Scola di San Rocco in the 1520s. The print itself has the insignia of the Scuola on it. It therefore seems likely that the work is a rare example of a devotional print produced for the purpose of promoting an institution, one which was used to raise funds for the Scuola’s new headquarters. The multi-vignette design, and combination of word – in the local vernacular – and image also make it unique in Titian’s graphic oeuvre (nerding out here).

It’s probably relevant to point out that Titian eventually died of the plague. Although he was at least in his late eighties at the time, so he had a pretty good run.

***

Ok, final note: in addition to being the official plague saint, St. Roch is associated with dogs, invalids, the falsely accused, and bachelors. The first three make sense. The last one make of what you will. 

Also, I don’t really know what MVP means.

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A Western Art History blog by someone who sometimes gets paid  to read and write about Western Art History. Mostly Old Masters. Mostly Italian. Hopefully accurate.

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