Artwork: educator of the epidemic

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Roch left a wealthy family in Montpellier from the 14th century behind and traveled to Italy as a beggar pilgrim. There he healed those affected by the devastation of a bubonic plague in the name of the cross. He traveled between Cesena, Rome, Mantua, Modena, Parma and other cities. No clergyman prevented him from serving.

He himself succumbed to the plague in Piacenza and retired to a forest, expecting to die. He was followed by a local nobleman who brought leftover bread to the sick man. After recovering, he returned to Montpellier, where his family did not recognize the ragged beggar as their child and relatives. Instead of claiming his identity, he died in prison five years later on August 16. He was just 32 years old.

During the Council of Constance, which met on Lake Constance in 1414, the plague broke out. The Council Fathers commanded prayers and processions in honor of the saint, and the plague ended immediately. After that, his folk cult as a saint who was to be invoked against epidemics quickly spread. Immediately recognizable in art, he bares his thigh to uncover a bubonic plague wound with his faithful companion dog.

A guild (scuola) was founded in Venice in 1478 to care for the sick under the auspices of St. Roch. At the same time, the Vita Sancti Rochi, pseudonymously written by Francisco Diedo, was published. Seven years later, the relics of the saint were brought to Venice from Germany.

The fraternity originally met in one of the chapels of the Frari Church, but after a surge in donations with the plague of 1515, the guild built its own building, which finally opened in 1560.

Four years later, the elders of the guild held a competition for a central ceiling painting of the Glorification of St. Roch. This was won by Jacopo Rubusti, called Tintoretto (1519-96). This initial commission (which he won through keen practice by presenting a finished painting as a gift to the Doge and the Senate instead of offering a sketch as requested) prompted Tintoretto to decorate the school building and church as well.

When John Ruskin visited church in September 1845, he was outraged that a group of 18 otherwise well-behaved German tourists were being ignored after looking at the Tintoretto painting The Pond of Bethesda (which Ruskin actually had little opinion of) all the rest. In San Rocco, in the hospital, Ruskin found a very noble picture, albeit “a brown study of diseased limbs in a narrow space”.

And of course it is the “brown study” that makes the pictures of the “little dyer” so unforgettable. To fully understand your art, you have to go to school.

With the abundance of light from the lagoon, it is easier to combine Venetian painting with color – just think of Titian and Veronese, and later Sebastiano Ricci, Canaletto and the Tiepolos – but Tintoretto offers a range of browns, grays and blacks, which allow him to ground his pictures in a completely different way when pierced with color, without reference to perspective and precise drawing art.

The paintings for the Scuola are in clear contrast to his greatest work, the preserved wall decoration in the Doge's Paradise, but here the intensity of his limited color palette stands out.AlamySaint Roch by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, now in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, "arguably one of the most depressed paintings of a saint"

Only under Pope Urban VIII (1623-44) was an ecclesiastical office approved for St. Roch on the anniversary of his death, August 16. In 1623 the 46-year-old Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens was commissioned by the Brotherhood of St. Roch in Aalst to create an altarpiece for the guild in the Church of St. Martin.

It is one of the few by Rubens that is still in its original setting, with its 1626 reredos. The several painted sketches that have been preserved show how Rubens developed his ideas alongside the commission. As Willibald Sauerländer emphasizes in his invaluable book The Catholic Rubens (2011, English translation, 2014), Rubens was familiar with the cult from his own parish, Sint Jakob in Antwerp.

Under the arch of a stone bridge, seven men and women lying on infected straw pallets scream for a cure, while Roch kneels up in prayer and his bare right thigh shows his bubonic plague wound. He holds his pilgrim hat and staff in his right hand and is in the center of the altarpiece. His loyal dog is next to him.

The scene is dragged out of prison when the risen Lord entered the presence of the dying person to designate him as the patron saint of those with the pest. Helpful? An angel holds up the charge sheet "Eris in Peste Patronus". The members of the Brotherhood would have called here: "Greetings, you wise doctor and conqueror of the plague, may you illuminate the epidemic in our members and be our advocate, oh Roch, with the King of Glory."

A century later, the Venetian G. B. Tiepolo (1696-1770) probably painted one of the most depressed paintings of a saint in the canon (around 1730-35). In a small oil painting (44 × 33 cm) now in the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the exhausted young saint rests on a rock, staring almost lifelessly at the ground. Despite his apparent youth, his devastated body is far from the manliness of the man to whom Christ entrusted the patronage of a brotherhood in the southern Netherlands.

His left hand has pulled in his tunic to reveal his bared thigh, and he has taken off his hat, revealing his disheveled and unkempt hair. Next to him he has his staff up against a ledge of stone, but although he has a bun in his right hand, it doesn't look like he has the energy to eat or continue his journey.

Tiepolo has cleverly suggested clues to his past wealth, as the blue tunic is caught with a red ribbon around the neck and his collar appears to be freshly laundered. but there is no doubt of his sad abandonment and regret.

As an image of despair in the face of an epidemic, of the pilgrim as a man of suffering, it is unfortunate without even having pity. As a passage in the life of one who has given up his earthly privilege of serving the outcast and the poor and identifying with them to the point of his own suffering, it offers poetic contemplation in our own strange days.

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