Saints of the Black Death

Saintly Intercession and the Church

Flight—while perhaps native to human beings in danger—ran contrary to the sacramental presence that the Church offered flesh and blood bodies. Church authorities in the Middle Ages were often critical of the flight instinct, urging men and women to stay close to home, to care for their families in the moment of death. Concurrently, while grateful for modern sanitation practice (including quarantines), the Church upheld another source of healing. The intercession of the saints. Saintly intercession was ubiquitous in the Middle Ages. Part of this devotion to the saints was a clear patronage system whereby cities were protected by the saints, made flesh (literally) in the city with the presence of relics.[1]

To us, relics function akin to a museum of curiosities: a bit of St. Peter and a bit of St. Paul (how fascinating!). But this was not the approach to saints of our medieval forebears. Especially in high medieval society, the saint was made present through the reliquary and the various arts depicting the saint in the Eucharistic liturgy. The bodily sculpture or the painting of the saint was the presence of the saint, enabling us to see in the bone fragment or even human head more than the senses could immediately perceive. Reliquaries often allowed physical contact with the saint, including spaces where the human body could climb in, looking in to touch and perceive the saint. Altarpieces functioned akin to Byzantine icons. We are not only looking at the Bible for the illiterate, but the very presence of saintly men and women made manifest through paint.

During the plague, the Church called men and women to renewed devotion to the saints. Because of the patronage system, we may be tempted to view this simply as an occasion of superstition or magical thinking among our forebears, who entered a contractual tit-for-tat with saintly patrons for the salvation of friends or even the city itself. I make this offering, now intercede for me. But this only partially captures what is happening. Saintly intercession recognizes that we possess a communion—as my colleague Leonard DeLorenzo has written—that surpasses death. When the Church was experiencing profound dis-communion, the saints offered a possibility for a salvific communion that could make sense of death and sorrow alike. Saints were intercessors, but they were also those who enlightened the imagination of those suffering the plague, enabling them to see Christian hope in occasions of infinite sorrow. The saints were the very presence of hope. Almost any plague saint (and there were likely thousands because of the local character of the cult of saints) could function here. But I want to focus on three universal patrons of the Church. St. Michael the Archangel, St. Sebastian, and Mary, the Mother of God.

First, let us turn to St. Michael the Archangel. St. Michael the Archangel was the defender of the Jewish people (in the Old Testament) and features prominently in the Book of Revelation. In Revelation 12, Michael defeats Satan (depicted as a dragon), throwing him down from the heavens to the earth. How did St. Michael become a plague saint? During the papacy of Gregory the Great, in 590, there was an outbreak of the plague. St. Gregory the Great led a procession through the streets of Rome, featuring an image of a miraculous icon of the Madonna and Child (one used by Pope Francis during Eucharistic adoration in the Coronavirus pandemic). According to the Golden Legend, St. Michael appeared during the procession, putting his sword into the sheath. We can see this very image in Rome today, at Castel Sant’Angelo.

At least initially, the iconography may seem to us rather mundane. After all, it makes sense to connect the plague to Satan, to the cosmic force that is the very presence of sin and death. But one must attend more closely to St. Michael’s defeating of a dragon. In late medieval society, the dragon was linked to the Eucharistic liturgy itself. A series of polyphonic Masses developed, later called the Caput Masses. These Masses took the cantus firmus (the chant tone from Holy Thursday where Peter asks Jesus to wash not only his feet but his head or caput) and then used that tone in a Mass setting for the feast of the Ascension.

The musicologist Anne Walters Robertson has argued that these fourteenth century Masses have their roots in Rogation-day processions in late medieval society.[2] Before the Ascension, men and women would walk the bounds of their parish, asking for God’s forgiveness and blessing. Along the way, a dragon (representing Satan) would be placed at the front. Over the course of the days, he was gradually put at the back of the procession, showing his defeat. During the Ascension Day Mass, the Missa Caput (such as this one from Jacob Obrecht) would be sung. During the consecration, at least in some English towns, the dragon was “slayed” during the consecration of the Blessed Sacrament.  

This brings us back to St. Michael. His defeat of the dragon, therefore, takes on Eucharistic connotations during the plague. Let us look at but one example, Gerard Davis’s Michaelsaltar (1510). Notice the dark clouds above, often used as an image representing the plague. At the center of the altar, St. Michael slays Satan, depicted as a dragon-like figure. The consecration of the Host was intended to be raised up against this image, enabling the one who gazed upon the Eucharist to visibly see what was invisibly unfolding. In the Eucharist, St. Michael defeated the dragon anew, the chaos of sin and death that inflicted the human person. The intercession of St. Michael is therefore closely connected to the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice. No matter what happens within the city, the Eucharistic liturgy continues (even if people are not able to attend). The dramatic sacrifice unfolds.

St. Sebastian, like St. Michael, was not first and foremost a plague saint.[3] An early Roman martyr of the third century, St. Sebastian was tied to a post and shot with arrows. He did not die. Rescued by St. Irene of Rome, he later went to Diocletian the emperor to preach against the emperor’s sins. He was, naturally, clubbed to death. His cult was popular in Rome, such that he became the third patron of the holy city. St. Sebastian became a plague saint through an occasion of plague intercession. In 680, the city of Pavia in Italy was suffering from bubonic plague. According to Paul the Deacon, angels appeared in battle with one another. A certain man in attendance was told that the plague would not subside until an altar was built in the Basilica of St. Peter in Vincoli, within Rome. The plague subsided at the precise moment, according to the legend, that the altar was built.

Of course, this is not the only reason that St. Sebastian became a plague saint. The symbol of the plague were arrows. Why? Arrows were an image of the divine wrath, inflicted upon humankind. But Christians transformed this image. For example, let us look at Nicolas Regnier’s “Saint Sebastian Attended by the Holy Women.” Pay attention to the spot of the arrow, its location in the side of St. Sebastian. Just as the Church came forth from the side of Christ in the Gospel of John, Christian charity flows from the side of St. Sebastian. St. Irene of Rome is an image of the Church, tending to the wounded. Further, notice the luminosity of St. Sebastian’s body. It is as white as the Eucharistic Host itself. St. Sebastian’s body becomes itself a Eucharistic offering. The healing of St. Sebastian by St. Irene is a consequence of the Eucharist itself, the presence of Jesus Christ dwelling in history.  

St. Sebastian becomes a plague intercessor, not only because of his patronage in 680, but because his very body (and the image of the arrow) becomes a consolation for those who suffered or lost those in the plague. In his suffering, St. Sebastian is a Christological figure, tied up, led as a Lamb to his slaughter. But his death is not the end. He is, within the legend, quite literally rescued from death, experiencing the Resurrection. The body of St. Sebastian becomes a source of hope for all Christians who die. Death can be configured to the sacrifice of Christ.

We hear this in a motet by the early Renaissance composer, Guillaume Du Fay. His O Sancte Sebastiane, a sequence intended for Mass, invites the faithful to listen (textually and musically) to the salvation offered through the body of St. Sebastian.[4] His body protects the faithful from the plague because he has shaped his body, in martyrdom, into an image of Christ. The music itself—including the dissonance—invites the listener not to escape the horrors of death. But to let death itself become a sacrificial offering, the dissonance of life transfigured through music. Through it all, the community is brought together throughout as the piece proceeds. As Remi Chiu writes:

The rhetorical progression of the sequence text displays a wide scope in the petitioner’s intentions. The speaker begins in the first person—while I am still sound of mind, conserve and protect me from pestilence. Very quickly, the concern grows to include friends and family—defend and protect me and all of my loved ones. In the second talea, Sebastian’s Milanese citizenship . . . is invoked, as if to remind him of his responsibility to earthly communities. Finally, the latter part of the sequence . . . adopts the plural voice—preserve us, heal and protect us, and may we receive the reward of heaven; the voice of the community joins that of the singular penitent in prayer. In the context of performance, the interplay of “I” and “we” weaves together the individual singers into a singing ensemble.[5]

From fear of my own death, to my family and friends, I am brought together into the unity of love that is the Church. This relationship between sacrifice, Eucharist, and St. Sebastian may be seen in a fourteenth century altarpiece. Giovanni del Biondo’s Saint Sebastian Triptych (ca. 1375) is a Eucharistic icon. At the center is the body of the plague saint, pierced by arrows. He is configured to Christ, shot with arrows on a pole. To the left is an image of the angel and to the right, the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Annunciation was a Eucharistic motif in late medieval art (Et verbum caro factum est et habitavit in nobis). The various panels depict the life of Sebastian, his intercession for the sake of the city. To celebrate the Eucharistic liturgy before this triptych, in essence, was to invoke once again the intercession of St. Sebastian, the one who conformed himself perfectly to Christ.

Like our two other saints, the Blessed Virgin Mary may not immediately be recognized as a plague saint. After all, Christians have been devoted to Mary as the Mother of God from the earliest days of the Church. And yet, Marian devotion during the plague flourished. The typical argument for this increase in Marian devotion has tended to be psychological. Faced with the wrath of God, caused by plague, Christians turned to the Mother of God as a benefactor to relieve them from such sufferings. Such a psychological account—impossible to prove—may have been at play among some Christians. But devotion to Mary as a saint of the plague cannot be reduced to the maternal appeasement of her wrath-filled, Lord-like Son, Jesus.[6]  

In the late Middle Ages, art began to depict the swooning Virgin near the cross. Marian imagery, before the plague, tended to be iconic in form.[7] Although later discouraged, we can see in Rogier van der Weyden’s “The Descent from the Cross” (1438) an icon of a changed relationship to Mary. Look at the Virgin Mary, in blue. As her son was taken down from the cross, she has fainted. Her body is aligned with the Body of Christ. Her hand directs you to the scull upon the ground, a kind of memento mori or remembering of death. Mary suffers along with her son. One can only imagine what comfort this would have been to a world remembering the tragedy of death caused by plague. Mothers and fathers alike lost children, their hearts pierced by the sword of a sorrow almost impossible for us to imagine. Further, the image calls the Church to a deeper renewal or configuration to Christ’s own suffering. Mary is the very image of the Church. Rather, than flee during plague, the Church should remain behind, alongside the beloved Son, configuring herself to the suffering of Jesus.

Mary was therefore the Mother of Mercy, the one who took upon herself all of human suffering alongside her Son. Because she attuned herself to the tender compassion of her son as beloved Mother, she could intervene for all those who suffer. Increasingly, the Madonna would be depicted with child alongside two other plague saints. Saint Roch, who himself recovered from the plague. And Saint Sebastian. An example is “Madonna with Child with Saint Roch and Saint Sebastian” (1518) by Lorenzo Lotto. The scarlet red of Mary’s robe points toward Christ’s suffering, his very blood. And the image of his male member is also a sign of this suffering. Jesus who underwent circumcision in his first days knows what it means to belong to the human condition.[8]

Increased Marian devotion during the plague was not simply reserved to the swooning Virgin. Rather, there was also a renewed devotion to Mary’s Immaculate Conception and her Assumption during the Plague. The Immaculate Conception, at the beginning of the plague, was still a doctrine under critical examination in theology.[9] And yet, Mattia Pretti’s painting of the Immaculate Conception shows the relationship between this doctrine and the plague. Painted after the 1675 outbreak in Malta, Mary stands upon Satan, who himself is placed upon the dragon. Here, we have the triumph of Mary against sin and death. Mary’s Immaculate Conception is good news for those suffering from, awaiting the plague. The plague is not reducible to divine wrath but evidence that something is awry, and through the Incarnation of the Son, death has met its match. We see angels sheathing their swords, a sign that the plague has been defeated. The bodies below, in dark colors, reach up to Mary. The location of the painting, immediately behind the altar, connects the Immaculate Conception to the Eucharist. If the human person is to experience what Mary did, then we must come again and again to the altar to receive the Blessed Sacrament.

There is also an increase in devotion to Mary as assumed body and soul into heaven. Sebastiano Ricci’s The Assumption of the Virgin (c. 1708-1712) has a surprising connection to the plague. Commissioned after an outbreak of the plague, dedicated to St. Charles Borromeo, the image depicts the Blessed Virgin Mary assumed into heaven. The disciples are engaged in prayer, wondering what has happened. In the right corner, there is a dog next to what was initially presumed to be St. James. But importantly St. Roch’s primary iconographic symbol is that of the dog. His feast was celebrated on the sixteenth of August, only a day after the Blessed Virgin Mary’s Assumption into heaven.[10] Of course, the Assumption as the promise of resurrection would be attractive to those who suffered from the plague. But perhaps something more is at play here. Mary, after all, is the rare saint for whom there is no bodily relic. She was assumed into heaven. And the relationship to bodies in plague, often buried among other bodies, leaving behind no place for remembering the dead would have been a source of sorrow. In Mary’s Assumption into heaven, we see more than a hope for the general resurrection, but a hope that our bodies (even if there is no particular grave) will also be assumed into heaven. Because of the mercy of Jesus Christ and his Mother, mater misericordia.

New Plague Saints

Of course, the Church also discovered in the plague new saints, those who met the challenge of their times by living out the sacrificial love of Christ in the midst of a suffering world. St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1390) was born in the time of the plague. We likely know her as the second founder of the Dominicans, the woman who called the Church to holiness, not afraid to speak up against the corrupt clergy (including popes) of the day. In 1374, St. Catherine experienced the plague in Siena, where she lost three siblings and other relatives. Everyone left the town as the best medical advice said. St. Catherine did not, nursing victims back to health.[11]

St. Brigid of Sweden (1303-1373) was a Swedish noblewoman, who became a third order Franciscan after the death of her husband. During the rest of her life, she would care for the sick, eventually founding a religious order dedicated to prayer and care for the poor, the Order of the Most Holy Saviour (or the Brigittines). Plague struck Sweden in 1349, as St. Brigid was on pilgrimage to Rome to seek approval for her rule. She arrived in Rome just as the plague attacked the city and the pope himself had departed. Both saintly women, in their writings, inquired into the meaning of the suffering inflicted by the plague. In her Dialogue (1377-78), St. Catherine dialogues with God about the meaning of suffering. Importantly, she has not presented this suffering as some occasion of wrath. Rather, she writes about the meaning of sacrifice as an occasion for deeper charity and thereby union with the Beloved Christ:

You asked me for a willingness to suffer. So I have shown you all this to teach you and my other servants how you should make this sacrifice of yourselves to me. I am speaking of sacrifice both in act and in spirit joined together as the vessel is joined with water offers to one’s lord . . . you must offer me the vessel of all your actual suffering, however I may send them to you—for the place and the time and the sort of suffering are not yours to choose, but mine. But this vessel of yours must be filled with the loving affection and true patience with which you carry all the burden of your neighbors’ guilt even while you hate and reject the sin.[12]

The endurance of such suffering is not punishment for St. Catherine but an occasion for a Eucharistic sacrifice for the sake of the neighbor. To endure suffering, even the death of one’s loved one, enables the extension of Christ’s sacrifice into the life of the devoted follower of Christ. The Church’s ministers may be absent during plague, and yet, in this instance one can offer one’s suffering Eucharistically.  

St. Bridget reflects similarly on suffering and death in her own divine revelations. In the fifth book of her revelations, in the sixth interrogation, she asks several questions linked to the plague. Why do plagues exist at all? Why does death come unexpectedly? God answers the latter question by saying:

I answer: If man knew the time of his death, he would serve me out of fear and faint with sorrow. Therefore, in order that man might serve me out of charity and that might always be solicitous about himself and secure about me, the hour of his death is uncertain—and deservedly so. For, when man deserted that which was certain and true, it was necessary and right that he be afflicted with uncertainty.[13]

St. Bridget does not speak about the suddenness of death, therefore, as only punishment or wrath. Rather, because death comes when we do not expect it, human beings have the freedom to make of their lives a sacrificial offering. They may live an existence of freely bestowed charity. Contingency—including plague—are part of the fall. And rather than be bitter about this, the suddenness of death becomes an occasion for deeper love or the exercise of charity. Both saintly women, in the end, provide a way for the Christian to transform suffering and death into a sacrificial offering. The task was not to run away from the plague and thereby communion. It was to run into the suffering, transforming it into a space of love.

St. Charles Borromeo was a saint who followed the example of St. Catherine and St. Bridget. Born in 1538, St. Charles was named a Cardinal of the Catholic Church in his early 20s by his uncle Pope Pius IV. St. Charles was only then ordained a deacon, called to Rome, where he was charged to enact the final session of the Council of Trent (which was continually postponed because of war and plague).[14] St. Charles was appointed Archbishop of Milan in 1564. The Archbishop of Milan typically did not reside in the city, instead living in Rome. Because of this, the Milanese Church was profoundly corrupt. Clerics had many children. They openly carried swords, functioning akin to feudal lords. It was bad enough that a saying developed in Milan, “If you want to go to hell, become a priest.”

St. Charles insisted upon living in Milan, where he enacted the reforms of the Council of Trent including the education of clergy, increased promotion of lay holiness, and held regular diocesan and provincial synods. He visited every parish in his diocese, for he knew that the vocation of the bishop was to be present to his people. Unlike other bishops of his time, he regularly preached. And he provided times of 40-hour devotion to both the Eucharist and the holy relic of the nail of Christ in the Cathedral at Milan. In 1576, plague descended upon Milan. At the time, St. Charles was outside the city, but he rushed home. Almost immediately, St. Charles entered the Milanese lazarettos, giving Viaticum and anointing the sick. He did so at great personal risk, against the advisement of both public officials and some of his clergy.[15] Because St. Charles knew that the Milanese needed the presence of the Lord in this time, when nearly every ward of the city was in quarantine, he placed altars in public places so that men and women could gaze outside their windows to behold the Eucharistic presence of the Lord. He assembled litanies to be sung in the home, with Italians singing out their windows to one another.

And St. Charles held penitential processions when men and women could finally leave their home. During the procession, he wore a noose around his neck. On the first procession, he cut his foot on a grate and walked the rest of the way with a limp. Documenting the procession, the musicologist Remi Chiu writes:

Witnesses to the wound were all moved to compassion and cried out “Miserere, Miserere!” The third and final procession was to be the most solemn. Borromeo bid the parochial clergy to bring out the most precious relics in order to move the masses to devotion and to appeal to the saints. He himself carried the prized Milanese relic from the cathedra, the Holy Nail, attached to a cross. At the close of this procession, Borromeo returned to the cathedral and began a forty-hour devotion, with an hourly meditation on a mystery of the Passion.[16]

St. Charles’s procession responded to the deepest of human need. A desire for presence, especially during sickness. He knew that the Church, if she was to be healed not only from plague but from the corruption internal to her clergy and lay members[17], needed to be in the presence of one another, of the sick and suffering, and of the saints.

When the pandemic was over, St. Charles did not return to normal. He commissioned a Church to be consecrated to St. Sebastian, as a memorial of gratitude that many in the city did not die.[18] He composed works to lay men and women, bestowing them a series of spiritual exercises that they might perform in gratitude for the plague.[19] If plague is to come, then it should lead to deeper holiness, more frequent reflection on the mortality and thereby the contingency of our lives. Eucharistic participation should increase, because frequent reception is what enables us to transform our suffering and death into a space of love. And like all the great saints, the presence of St. Charles made other saints. St. Aloysius Gonzaga, S.J. (1568-1591) received his First Communion at the hands of St. Charles in 1580, two years after the plague. Perhaps, he heard St. Charles preach a sermon like this one, one that he preached on Holy Thursday after the washing of the feet:

The Creator of heaven and earth washed the feet of poor disciples; but among us, how many there are who would more readily wash their own feet with wine than extend a cup of cold water to a poor man! He showed the services of kindness to his betrayer; we deny to friends the services we owe them . . . Let us be affected in spirit . . . by the indignity of such a thing. Let us be moved by such humble submission in such majesty, and let us humble ourselves with the Lord, if we desire to be exalted with him. With him let us serve the poor, if we wish to reign with him. Let us wash one another’s feet, if we wish to be disciples of Christ. Let us conform ourselves in life to our head, and he will design to conform us to himself in glory. Amen.[20]

What St. Charles advocated for, was exactly what St. Alyosius did. He felt a call to missionary work in the Jesuits, and he found himself a student in Rome in 1591 during an outbreak of the plague. The Jesuits opened a hospital in Rome, caring for those who were sick. He begged for alms, seeking out the sick on the streets of Rome. He carried them to the hospital. When Jesuits began to be sick, they were told to not go back to the hospital. St. Alyosius argued his case. His superiors let him go back. Not long after carrying a sick man back to his bed, St. Alyosius contracted the plague, dying on June 21, 1591. A plague saint, who learned to be a saint from another plague saint, who learned to respond to the plague by the saints who came before.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This is the second part of the a three-part series on the Black Plague. Part one is linked on our homepage and at the very bottom of this page. More tomorrow. 

[1] Arnold Angenendt, “Relics and Their Veneration,” in Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe, ed. Martina Bagnoli, Holger A. Klein, Griffith Mann, and James Robinson (London: The British Museum Press, 2010), 19-28.

[2] Anne Walters Robertson, “The Savior, the Woman, and the Head of the Dragon,” Jouranl of the American Musicological Society 59 (2006): 537-630.

[3] Sheila Barker, “The Making of a Plague Saint: Saint Sebastian’s Imagery and Cult Before the Counter-Reformation,” in Piety and Plague: From Byzantium to the Baroque, ed. Franco Mormando and Thomas Worcester (Kirksville, MO: Truman University Press, 2007), 90-127.

[4] Remi Chiu, Plague and Music in the Renaissance (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 85-

[5] Ibid., 89.

[6] For a standard treatment of this theme, see Elizabeth Johnson, Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2006), 71-96.

[7] Stephen N. Fliegel, A Higher Contemplation: Sacred Meaning in the Christian Art of the Middle Ages (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2012), 95-97.

[8] See, Leo Steinberg’s classic The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance and in Modern Oblivion (New York: Pantheon, 1983). For a further discussion of the theme of Christ’s circumcision and Mary in Eucharistic art, see Beth Williamson, “Liturgy and Devotion,” Speculum 79.2 (2004): 387-404.

[9] The Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, ed. Edward O’Connor, C.S.C. (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press, 1958).

[10] James Clifton, “Art and Plague in Naples,” in Hope and Healing: Painting in Italy in a Time of Plague, 1500-1800, ed. Gauvin Alexander Bailey, Pamela M. Jones, Franco Mormando, and Thomas W. Worcester (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 97-117.

[11] See her letters during the plague in The Letters of Catherine of Siena—Volume 1, trans. Suzanne Noffke, O.P. (Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2000), 48-210.

[12] Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue, trans. Suzanne Noffke, O.P. (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 46.

[13] Brigitta of Sweden, Life and Selected Revelations, trans. Albert Ryle Kezel (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), 109.

[14] For a biography of St. Charles of Borromeo, see John R. Cihak, “Introduction: Reform From Within,” in Charles Borromeo: Selected Orations, Homilies, and Writings (New York: T&T Clark, 2017), 1-22.

[15] Pamela M. Jones, “San Carlo Borromeo and Plague Imagery in Milan and Rome,” in Hope and Healing, 65-96.

[16] Chiu, Plague and Music in the Renaissance, 99.

[17] For the plague as an image of corruption in general, see Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1978).

[18] Chiu, Plague and Music in the Renaissance, 185-187.

[19] Charles Borromeo, “Daily Christian Living,” in Charles Borromeo, 163-186.

[20] Charles Borromeo, “Washing feet as Christ did,” in Charles Borromeo, 50.

Featured Image: Rogier van der Weyden, Descent from the Cross, 1435; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Timothy O'Malley

Timothy P. O’Malley is the Director of Education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life, where he also serves as Academic Director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy. He teaches and researches at Notre Dame in the areas of liturgical-sacrmental theology, catechesis, and aesthetics. He is the author of numerous articles and books, most recently, the forthcoming Divine Blessing: Liturgical Formation in the RCIA.

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