Saint Roch, seen with a halo at the center of this painting by the Renaissance master Tintoretto, is said to have saved the people of Barcelona during the plague. Because of his great deeds, local residents have held an annual St. Roch festival since 1589.
It is said that when St. Roch had just arrived in Barcelona, he got infected with the plague. When he curled up in a corner of the city wall and waited for death, a dog from the nearby bakery saved him by delivered small pieces of bread every day. Eventually, Roch recovered miraculously, and the dog never left his side again. In Tintoretto’s painting, you can see the dog curled up at the foot of the bed.
This painting is the first depiction of the plague in Venetian art. The dramatic setting of the interior of the pest house is rendered even more striking by the double light source, created in the background by flaming torches and in the foreground by an improbable band of light flooding in from an unknown lateral source.
Compared with many natural and man-made disasters throughout history, plagues and pandemics are special. They seem to come from nowhere and then disappear without trace, killing people without cause or discernment spreading fear in their wake.
Looking to the art of our ancestors, we can see how they interpreted these tragedies as having divine meaning for the people. They saw the grace of God in their survival and sought to express their reinforced faith through beautiful paintings that depicted both the suffering of the world as well as the salvation awaiting us in heaven.