Throughout the prevalence of the macabre in artworks.[1] However,


Throughout the
late medieval and early modern period, the veneration of plague saints was an
important aspect of European Christianity, motivated by a belief that they were
capable of curing diseases and interceding with God. The specialisation of
certain saints during the plague was often based upon linguistic associations
with the saint’s name, their associations with plague symbolism and their
ability to thwart the wrath of God. After the plague hit Europe in 1348 and
during its subsequent outbreaks, there was a proliferation of saintly artwork
produced which directly related to the plague. Previous scholarship has been
devoted to investigating how people’s understanding of the cause of the plague
influenced art, and explaining the prevalence of the macabre in artworks.1
However, recent attention suggests how saintly images might have offered
celestial protection against the disease.

No other plague outbreak in history caused the same level of destruction
as the Black Death, which meant that the creation of plague images was not
restricted to any one social class or group.2
Through these plague images, worshipers sought refuge from the plague by
soliciting the intervention of powerful protectors on their behalf.3
These protectors were usually saints, whose special status achieved through
their martyrdom meant they could intermediate with God, ‘there existed a gulf
between the heavens and the earth that the laity could not breach of their own
accord….helped the laity connect with the divine; thus the cult of saints was
devised as one way in which common Christians could reach God.’4
An emphasis on the intercessory of saints in images has been analysed as
evidence that medieval people retained hope during this period despite the fear
of the disease.5 It
was believed by Christians that ‘Saints, on the basis of his or her
holiness…could command the power to meet the needs of people who encountered
signs of their own helplessness and impotence at every turn’.6
Plague art therefore, serves as a method by which we can understand the
psychological responses to fear the Black Death aroused in its victims.

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Moreover, it acts as a form of documentation on how individuals relied on
religion to give them protection during a time when little was known about what
caused the plague.

The present discourse will explore the extent to which saintly
imagery was used as a response to fight the plague in 15th century Italy, and
why the cults of plague saints gathered momentum and became more prominent in
devotional artwork. Additionally, reasons as to why paintings of plague saints
reinforced the confidence with which Renaissance worshipers sought solutions to
the ongoing consequences of the plague will be explored. Finally, this paper
will investigate how people’s understanding of the cause of the plague
influenced the art in 15th century Italy and the extent to which images of
plague saints acted as visual medicine.

Saint Sebastian
in Plague Art

In 1464, the
artist Benozzo Gozzoli received a commission from the Augustinian monastery at
San Gimignano in Tuscany to paint an altarpiece dedicated to Saint Sebastian on
the nave on the south wall (figure 1). It is known to be one of four plague
pictures created by Gozzoli. His St.

Sebastian fresco is both a pictorial invocation for the intercession of the
saint and an expression of the firm belief in his power to protect the people
of San Gimignano against the plague.

Figure 1. Benozzo Gozzoli. Saint Sebastian protecting the
populace of San Gimmignano, 1464. San Gimignano, S. Augostino.


1463 the plague hit Tuscany, having spread across Italy the year before.

Gozzoli reached San Gimignano before the plague broke out having been
commissioned by the Augustinian monk Fra Domenico Strambi to paint the
Saint’Agostino fresco cycle in the choir of the church.7
It was during an outbreak in 1464 that Gozzoli was interrupted from painting
the Sant’Augostino cycle in the apsidal chapel and was asked to execute a
painting of Saint Sebastian. 8  The words “Baptism of St. Augustine by St.

Ambrose” with the date 1 April 1464 ADI PRIMO APRILE MILLE CCCCLXIIII are
inscribed on the cornice of the baptismal font in the ” Baptism of St.

Augustine by St. Ambrose” which marks the interruption of the work on the St.

Augustine fresco cycle as well as the beginning of his work on the St. Sebastian. 9
Gozzoli only took X time
to paint the altarpiece, reflecting a sense of despracy for an image of Saint
Sebastian to be created in the wake of the plague.

Saint Sebastian’s popularity as a plague saint can be dated back to
the medieval period, with his prominence in plague imagery largely attributed
to the widespread belief that he offered protection against diseases. Saint
Sebastian is known to have been venerated as a martyr in Italy from the times
of Saint Ambrole (337/340-397) onwards.10
The centre of his cult was Rome, where his martyrdom took place.11
After refusing to convert, Sebastian was tied to a column and was shot through
with arrows. Miraculously, he survived being pierced by the arrows but was
later clubbed to death. Despite the fact that neither his martyrdom nor his
death were related to disease, Sebastian was the first saint to be invoked
against the plague.12  It is perhaps Sebastian’s connection with
arrows during his martyrdom which led to his cult as a plague saint13.

The arrow itself is the most recurring symbol associated within plague art. It
is argued by Christine Boeckl that the arrow was perceived to be the ‘divine
retributions for the sins of mankind’ sent by God to ‘scourge…human frailties’.14
The arrow itself was already a symbol of sudden death, and had been identified
with the plague through Apollo who was known to ‘…both send and avert the arrows
of pestilence’ in Homer’s ‘Iliad’.15
Therefore, Sebastian’s ability to survive the arrows during his martyrdom
suggests that this is why people turned to him to escape the arrows of the

Saint Sebastian’s association with sickness and plague can be traced
back to the ‘Historia Langobardorum’,
in the sixth book of which Paul the Deacon refers to an epidemic (pestilencia)
that came to Rome and Pavia:

It visibly appeared to many
that a good and a bad angel proceeded by night through the city and as many
times as, upon command of the good angel, the bad angel, who appeared to carry
a hunting spear in his hand, knocked at the door of each house with the spear,
so many men perished from that house on the following day. Then it was said to
a certain man by revelation and the pestilence itself would not cease before an
altar of St. Sebastian the martyr was placed in the church of the blessed
Peter… and after the remains of St. Sebastian the martyr had been carried from
the city of Rome, presently the altar was set up in the aforesaid church and
the pestilence itself ceased.16

The story was subsequently included as a miracle in the Life of St.

Sebastian in the ‘Legenda aurea’. From
1348 onwards, it established him as a plague saint and intercessor, resulting
in him becoming a figure of intense devotion in times of plague to his cult.

Although Gozzoli’s altarpiece names Sebastian as an intercessor, the
image of the saint depicted in this fresco suggests he also had the more
developed role as an individual who could halt the plague on his own accord. At
the top of the altarpiece, God sits within the celestial sphere holding arrows
in his hand. Flanked by angels also wielding the symbolic arrows of the plague,
God throws down the arrows towards humanity as punishment for their sins,
reinforcing the view held by medieval Christians that they worshiped a God who
was ‘not really a father at all, not a paterfamilias, but absolute power’.17
Saint Sebastian stands below God and the angels on a pedestal at the centre of
the painting with his hands joined in prayer. The people of San Gimignano,
males on the right and females on the left, seek refuge in prayer under his
outspread gown as indicated by the inscription on the pedestal, which reads
able to shatter and deflect the arrows away from the people of San Gimignano,
creating the image of a Saint who can protect Christians from the plague
arrows. In turn, images such as this would have reinforced the story of
Sebastian saving Rome and Pavia in the Historia
Langobardorum, leading to the belief that members of Sebastian’s cult could
be protected from the plague if they pray to him.

In addition to his dual role as an active intercessor and as a saint
who can stop the plague on his own accord, is that in Gozzoli’s altarpiece,
Saint Sebastian takes on the role of the Madonna della Misericordia, or the Mary
of Mercy. The Madonna della Misericordia is typically shown in images
protecting individuals with her outstretched mantle.18
Gozzoli’s St. Sebastian mimics this
Marian imagery by shielding individuals with his outspread cloak. Based on
investigations into this imagery, there are no other parallels that exist between
Gozzoli’s Sebastian and any other artistic representation of the saint.19
Louise Marshall has argued that this painting recalls images of the Virgin Mary
as the Madonna della Miscericordia to reflect an idea that invocation of Saint
Sebastian’s aid against the plague would set “in motion a systematically
pursued joint effort that proceeds inexorably upwards through the celestial
hierarchy.”20 By
reflecting Sebastian in this way, Gozzoli would have created an even more
powerful image of the Saint, suggesting that through the use of Marian imagery
he is not working alone to save the populace of San Gimignano. Furthermore,
there are three other motifs which are all common features of the Mater Omnium type of the Virgin of Mercy
inherited by Gozzoli’s St. Sebastian:
the hands joined in prayer, the two angels holding out the gown, and the
separation between the sexes (males on the right side of the Madonna and
females on the left side) all represented images found in the Madonna della
Miscericordia and strengthened his role as a plague saint in this altarpiece.21

The combination in Gozzoli’s fresco of the figure of God hurling the
arrows of the plague alongside the dual intercession
scene below is also unique in Italian plague art: on the clouds below
God and the angels, the Virgin and Christ (identified by appropriate
inscriptions) support St. Sebastian in interceding on behalf of the people of
San Gimignano. 22 Usually,
it is the ‘enraged Christ’ who is hurls down the darts of the pestilence in
most plague art of the time. However, in Gozzoli’s fresco, God the Father
replaces Christ above in the centre, whilst Christ replaces St. John as the
male intercessor sitting below Gold on the left. 23
On the left below God, is the Virgin Mary kneeling beside Jesus reinforcing the
closeness of her maternal relationship with Christ making her the ‘greatest
intercessor’. INSERT FOOTNOTE. In addition to the
intercession of Saint Sebastian below them, the Virgin exposes her breast whilst
Christ shows the wounds of his passion; all three figures serving to remind God
of the suffering they have endured and the sacrifices they have made on behalf
of the earthly populace. Here, the working of the heavenly courts is most fully
elaborated in this fresco. Saint Sebastian does not act independently in saving
the people of San Gimignano. Instead, there is a joint effort between the three
intercessors to protect the populace of the town below. As the darts of the
plague are intercepted by Saint Sebastian’s cloak, the prayers of the three
intercessors are shown to have worked, reflecting a powerful image to the
viewer that salvation from the plague can be granted through saintly

Josse Lieferinxe’s painting Saint
Sebastian Intercedes during the Plague in Pavia displays a more concise
perspective of the celestial hierarchy (figure 2). In the top left hand corner
of the painting, Saint Sebastian kneels before God sitting on a gathering of
dark clouds which was usually an iconographic metaphor for God’s anger. INSERT FOOTNOTE. Below
them is the plague-stricken town of Pavia that the kneeling figure of Saint
Sebastian is trying to protect. Although he has arrows already absorbed in his
body suggesting that he is stopping the arrows destined for the laity, unlike
Gozzoli’s altarpiece, Saint Sebastian is not autonomously halting the onslaught
of the pestilence. Upon closer inspection, it
can be seen that God is not holding any arrows and that he is actually
extending his hand in blessing, thus the arrows protruding from Saint Sebastian’s
body are simply attributed. Whilst this image of God may seem to be a direct
contrast to the God in Gozzoli’s altarpiece, both portray the same message to
the viewer. Even though God the Father sends the plague arrows in Gozzoli’s St. Sebastian, the presence of the dove
of the Holy Ghost in front of God reveals the unity of purpose behind the
apparent conflict of offended Father and petitioning Son; the concentration of
divine justice in God allowed worshipers to approach and feel closer to Christ
himself as an intercessor on their behalf. INSERT FOOTNOTE.

Just like Lieferinxe’s image of God not sending down the arrows directly, it
allows for the threat of punishment and the promise of deliverance within the
one image.

Although Lieferinxe never went to Italy, this painting illustrates
one of St. Sebastian’s seventh-century miracles in the town of Pavia, as
described in the Golden Legend:

                                    “All Italy was stricken by a
plague so virulent that there was hardly anyone left to bury the dead, and this
plague raged most of Rome and Pavia. At this time there appeared to some a good
angel followed by a bad angel carrying a spear. When the good angel gave the
command, the bad one struck and killed, and when he struck a house, all the
people in it were carried out dead. Then it was divinely revealed that the
plague would never cease until an altar was raised in Pavia in honour of Saint
Sebastian. An altar was built in the Church of Saint Peter in Chains, and at
once the pestilence ceased.”24

Lieferinxe’s painting of Saint Sebastion includes the description of
the two angels in the Golden Legend.

They are portrayed by Lieferinxe in the top left corner underneath the
petitioning Sebastian as the strict executers of
divine justice. The angelic involvement in the sending of the plague is shown
through their status as divine messengers of God’s intentions toward humanity INSERT FOOTNOTE. Through this painting, the viewer is reminded of
God’s indiscriminate and universal anger, and how Saint Sebastian can act as an
affective intercessor by absoring the arrows of the plague and pleading to God
to stop the angelic archers from bringing the plague.

2.  Josse Lieferinxe, St. Sebastian intercedes during the plague in Pavia, 1497, Baltimore, Walters
Art Gallery.

                  Liefernixe’s painting
depicts a group of Christians experiencing the plague through the use of
particular iconography associated with the epidemic, to highlight the need for Saint
Sebastian’s intercessory capability. In the foreground two men are lowering a
corpse into an already occupied grave, when the left gravedigger suddenly
collapses from the plague. He tilts his head to left revealing a bubo – the
swelling of the lymph node caused by the infection of the plague. This was a
typical characteristic within plague imagery to show attempts to relieve the
pain caused by the swelling.25
Additionally, this painting may also be suggesting that a plague procession is
taking place, as priests to the right of the foreground read from a missal and
clergy emerge from the church behind them. These ceremonies were used to pray
to Saints, particularly Sebastian, to spare his worshipers from the plague.26 One ceremonial called The Procession in Time of
Epidemic and Plague found in the Rituale
Romanum details one such procession dedicated to Saint Sebastian:

us, O God, our Savior, and by the prayers of Glorious Mary, Mother of God, and
ever a Virgin, of St. Sebastian, your martyr, and of all the saints, deliver
your people from the wrath and in your bounty let them feel certain of your
mercy… We beg you, Lord, to hear our sincere please, and graciously to avert
this plague which afflicts us; so that mortal hearts may acknowledge that
scourges come from your wrath and cease only when you are moved to pity;
through Christ out Lord. 27

Through this painting, the pictorial
theme of the Triumph of Death is reinforced, capturing the full horror of the
plague.28 The
procession can be seen as a reflection of the Church’s attempts to recognise how
important Saint Sebastian’s cult had become and to clearly define his position
in the celestial hierarchy. INSERT FOOTNOTE. The church fought to emphasize that Saint
Sebastian was first and foremost a Christian martyr whose actions had earned
him special favour with God during the plague epidemic and as proof of his ‘inexhaustible
capacity to absorb in his own body the arrows destined for his worshipers’.

This identity as a martyr was made to mirror imagery of Christ as the ‘Man of
allowed for representations of Christ’s suffering on the cross to be recalled
and serve as a reminder to the worshiper that “direct access to the promise of
salvation from the plague was contained in Sebastian’s wounded but living
 By arranging the
scene in the foreground this way, it further allowed viewers to relate to the
devastation of the plague they were witnessing themselves, and further
highlight the need for the cult of Saint Sebastian.