The Great Heart Heist: The Stunning Theft of Saint Laurence O’Toole’s Preserved Heart

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Heart Reliquary of Saint Laurence O'Toole 3

Heart Reliquary of Saint Laurence O’Toole, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, Ireland.  Photo by Reliquarian.

Christ Church Cathedral opened as usual at 9:30 AM on 4 March 2012.[1]  Visitors trickled in to view the cathedral’s many sights, including the tomb-effigy of Strongbow (Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke) on the south side of the nave, and the mummified bodies of “The Cat and the Rat,” recovered from the church’s organ frozen mid-chase, on display in the crypt.  (James Joyce mentioned both these unfortunate animals in Finnegan’s Wake.)[2]  One sight apparently not on view that morning was a curious relic of Saint Laurence O’Toole, a 12th century Archbishop and Patron Saint of Dublin.  The saint’s heart, preserved in a heart-shaped reliquary, had been kept in the cathedral since the 13th century.  Around lunchtime, however, cathedral officials made a startling discovery:  The reliquary was gone, along with the heart of Saint Laurence.[3]

The Cat and the Rat - Christ Church Cathedral

“The Cat and the Rat,” Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, Ireland.  The mummified remains of a cat and a mouse were recovered from Christ Church’s organ in the 1860s.  James Joyce mentioned both these unfortunate animals in Finnegan’s Wake when he described a man as being “as stuck as that cat to that mouse in that tube of that christchurch organ.”  Photo by Reliquarian.

Losing Heart

No one is quite sure when the heart went missing.  Evidence suggested the thieves acted deliberately and that they had stolen the reliquary overnight after hiding in the church before it closed.[4]  At the time, a spokeswoman for the cathedral noted that other valuable objects, including gold chalices and gold candlesticks, had been left untouched by the intruders.[5]  “It’s completely bizarre,” she proclaimed.  “They didn’t touch anything else.  They specifically targeted this, they wanted the heart of St Laurence O’Toole.”[6]  The dean of Christ Church Cathedral lamented that while the heart had “no economic value,” it was nevertheless a “priceless treasure” linking the church to its founding father, Saint Laurence O’Toole.[7]

Christ Church Cathedral - Exterior 2

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, Ireland.  Photo by Reliquarian.

Open Heart Procedure

Purloining the heart from Christ Church would have taken some effort and advanced planning.  At the time, the heart was kept in a small chapel known as the Peace Chapel of Saint Laud.[8]  The heart itself was housed in a heart-shaped reliquary, which was secured to the wall inside an iron cage.  The reliquary was further attached to the wall by a chain, though the chain may have been more aesthetic than functional.[9]  To extract the heart, the thieves surgically cut through the iron bars of the cage and detached the chain before making their getaway.  According to investigators, there were no other immediate signs of damage indicating a break-in.[10]

Christ Church Cathedral - High Altar 2 (low)

High Altar, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, Ireland.  Photo by Reliquarian.

The Heart of the Matter

As noted above, Saint Laurence O’Toole (Lorcán Ua Tuathail) was not only an Archbishop of Dublin but also patron saint of the city.  Born in 1128 probably near Castledermot in County Kildare, Saint Laurence was appointed abbot of Glendalough at the age of 25.[11]  In 1162, he was elected Archbishop of Dublin upon the death of the city’s first archbishop, Gregory.  As archbishop, he was known for his discipline, generosity to the poor, and skill at negotiations.  As a negotiator, for example, he had been called upon to negotiate with a group of Norman knights, including Strongbow, who had marched on Dublin in an attempt to restore the deposed King of Leinster, Dermot McMurrogh.[12]  During the negotiations, however, “Dermot’s Anglo-Norman allies seized the city and gave themselves over to massacre and rapine.  Laurence returned to succour the sufferers and defend the survivors, and to be a centre of strength in the new danger.”[13]  Incidentally, in 1171, King Henry II of England, who had supported the Norman knights, arrived in Ireland.  That year, Henry II attended Christmas service at Christ Church and took communion for the first time since Thomas Becket was killed by his knights in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.[14]

Saint Laurence O'Toole - Christ Church

Saint Laurence O’Toole (detail), stained glass window, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, Ireland.  Photo by Reliquarian.

Heart to ♥

The heart shape (♥) we recognize as an ideogram for the heart or a symbolic representation of love or affection did not bear those associations at the time of Saint Laurence O’Toole’s death.  Geometrically the heart shape is a cardiodid, and it is a shape that occurs commonly in nature.[15]  It is, for example, evident in leaves and flowers and can be expressed in certain animal behaviors—imagine a pair of swans facing each other with necks bent and beaks touching.[16]  In art, the ♥ has been depicted since ancient times, but it was initially used to represent objects and ideas other than the human heart and romantic love.  Iain Gately notes, “The ♥ entered Western iconography via the Greeks, who used it to depict ivy or vine-leaves, respectively the symbols of constancy and regeneration.”[17]  Gradually the ♥’s association with constancy inspired a further association with courtly or romantic love.  In the medieval period, Gately explains, “[t]he ♥, indicating steadfast love for a damsel, and derived from the ivy leaf of Classical Grace,” became the emblem of romantic love and affection.[18]

Yellow Woodsorrel (Oxalis Stricta)

Yellow woodsorrel (Oxalis stricta).  The cardiodid or heart shape occurs commonly in nature.  The leaves of yellow woodsorrel appear as three connected ♥s.  Photo by Reliquarian.

Incidentally, the first depiction of someone offering his heart to another in a show of love can be traced to a 13th-century illustration in a manuscript known as the Roman de la poire (Romance of the pear).[19]  Significantly, the heart depicted in the manuscript does not bear the cardiodid form but, rather, is shaped like a pinecone.  The Greek physician Galen had described the human heart as appearing like a pinecone, and that misconception persisted for centuries.[20]  Still, the illustration in the Roman de la poire may be, in some roundabout way, the inspiration for the modern Valentine’s Day card.

Heart Reliquary of Saint Laurence O'Toole 2

Heart Reliquary of Saint Laurence O’Toole, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, Ireland.  The reliquary bears the cardiodid shape we associate today with the heart and emotions such as love and affection.  Photo by Reliquarian.

By the 15th century, however, the use of the ♥ as a symbol of love and a representation of the human heart had become well-established.[21].  For example, the iconography of the Sacred Heart, which developed during the Counter-Reformation, prominently featured the ♥ as a symbol of Jesus’ divine love.[22].  In these depictions, the Sacred Heart could be shown independently or emanating from Christ’s breast as a flaming heart, encircled with a crown of thorns, pierced and bleeding from a lance wound.  The ♥, however, also began appearing in non-secular contexts.  In 1480, for example, commercial playing cards in France began using the ♥, rather than more traditional cups representing the Holy Grail, to symbolize the clergy for a deck of card’s second suite.[23]

Sacred Heart Card - Univ of Dayton Libraries

Card Depicting the Sacred Heart of Jesus (c. 1880).  Auguste Martin Collection, University of Dayton Libraries, Dayton, Ohio.  Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Leaden Heart

Media reports have described the reliquary of Saint Laurence O’Toole’s heart as being a “wooden box” or a “wooden heart-shaped container.”[24]  We note that a similar vessel, discovered at a different Christ Church—this one, located in Cork City, Ireland—which also contained a human heart, was made of lead.[25]  Both heart-shaped containers were discovered in the 19th century, though nearly 160 miles apart.  (The Cork City heart case, now in the collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum, can be seen here.  The embalmed heart it contained looks like an old, wadded up leather glove.)  According to the Journal of the Co. Kildare Archeological Society and Surrounding Districts, Saint Laurence’s heart was not rediscovered until the 19th century.[26]  The Journal states, “Some few years ago there was found among rubbish in vaults of Christ Church, Dublin, a sort of vessel in the shape of a heart.  It has been surmised that the heart of Saint Laurence is or was contained therein.”[27].

Chapel of Saint Laurence - Christ Church

Portrait of Saint Laurence O’Toole, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, Ireland.  This depiction is located not far from the heart reliquary of Saint Laurence O’Tool.  Photo by Reliquarian.

So, who created Saint Laurence O’Toole’s heart reliquary, and when was it created?  Those answers remain unclear, though given the art historical evolution of the ♥ symbol, the reliquary was likely made hundreds of years after the saint’s death and the translation of his heart to Dublin.  Today, the heart reliquary of Saint Laurence O’Toole is displayed in an arrangement designed by Eoin Turner, a Cork-based artist.[28]

Curse of Saint Laurence O’Toole?

Nearly six years after it was stolen from Christ Church, the heart reliquary of Saint Laurence was recovered and returned to its home in the cathedral.[29]  Some reports suggested the Gardaí were tipped off by the thieves themselves.  The Irish Examiner, for example reported that the thieves had come to believe Saint Laurence’s heart was cursed after several people close to them died of apparent heart attacks.[30]  At the time of this writing, no other cardiac arrests have occurred in connection with the Great Heart Heist of Saint Laurence O’Toole’s Preserved Heart.  The thieves remain at large.

Heart Reliquary of Saint Laurence O'Toole

Heart Reliquary of Saint Laurence O’Toole, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, Ireland.  The reliquary was restored to Christ Church Cathedral in 2018.  It is currently housed in this glass display case resting on a soft, white pillow.  Photo by Reliquarian.


[1] Dublin Patron Saint’s Heart Stolen from Christ Church Cathedral, Mar. 4, 2012, BBC, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-17248394.

[2] James Joyce, Finnegans Wake.

[3] Dublin Patron Saint’s Heart Stolen from Christ Church Cathedralsupra note 1.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Sarah Burns, Heart of St Laurnce O’Toole To Be Returned Six Years After It Was Stolen, Apr. 26, 2018, Irish Times, https://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/heart-of-st-laurence-o-toole-to-be-returned-six-years-after-it-was-stolen-1.3475027.

[7] Dublin Patron Saint’s Heart Stolen from Christ Church Cathedralsupra note 1.

[8] Burns, supra note 6.

[9] Id.

[10] Dublin Patron Saint’s Heart Stolen from Christ Church Cathedralsupra note 1.

[11] 4 Butler’s Lives of the Saints 341 (Herbert J. Thurston, S.J. & Donald Attwater eds., 2d ed. 1956).

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Maurice Curtis, The Liberties:  A History (2013).

[15] Iain Gately, A Heart-Shaped History, Feb. 14, 2010, Lapham’s Quarterly, https://www.laphamsquarterly.org/roundtable/heart-shaped-historysee also Pierre Vinken, The Shape of the Heart (1999).

[16] Gately, supra note 15.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Ben Davis, How Did the Heart Become a Symbol of Love?  The Clues Lie in This Medieval French Illustration, Feb. 14, 2019, Slate, https://news.artnet.com/opinion/heart-as-symbol-love-medieval-illustration-1464961 (describing the illustration as “the first artistic depiction of someone giving their heart to their beloved as a symbol of love”).

[20] See, e.g.id.; Davis, supra note 19.

[21] Davis, supra note 19.

[22] Gately, supra note 15.

[23] Id.

[24] See, e.g., Saint Laurence O’Tooles Heart Found Six Years After Theft, Apr. 26, 2018, BBC, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-43905526 (“wooden box”); Burns, supra note 6 (“wooden heart-shaped container”).

[25] Irish Archeology, A Medieval Heart-Shaped Reliquary from Cork City, Feb. 14, 2019, https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#drafts/KtbxLvhRZGJNhgNfcQrdHqKPxGFqSpHnwL (“This heart-shaped lead casket containing an embalmed human heart was discovered inside the medieval crypt of Christ Church, Cork city (now the Triskel Arts Centre) during the 19th century.  An unusual find, it is not without parallel in Ireland, as a similar example is also known from Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.”); see also Human Heart in a Lead Heart-Shaped Case, Pitt Rivers Museum, http://objects.prm.ox.ac.uk/pages/PRMUID127977.html.

[26] 2 Journal of the Co. Kildare Archeological Society and Surrounding Districts 165 (1899).

[27] Id. The Journal continues, “There is a tradition among the people of Eu that Saint Laurence’s heart, immediately after his death, was taken to his native country.  We know that it was not uncommon for people to leave in their wills, or when dying to ask their friends to take their heart and deposit it in some church or shrine to which they had a special devotion.”  Id.  The Journal then notes that many of Christ Church’s holy relics were lost when a portion of the cathedral’s roof collapsed in the 15th century or as a result of the Reformation.  “Whether this one survived by being hidden away, and then forgotten, to again come to light accidentally in the nineteenth century, is a matter of conjecture.”  Id.

[28] Gregg Ryan, “Heart of Saint Laurence O’Toole Returned to Dublin, Church Times, Nov. 16, 2018, https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2018/16-november/news/world/heart-of-st-laurence-o-toole-returned-to-dublin.

[29] Burns, supra note 6.

[30]  Saint’s Heart Returned to Dublin Cathedral As Thieves Thought It Cursed, Irish Examiner, Apr. 17, 2018, https://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/heart-of-st-laurence-o-toole-to-be-returned-six-years-after-it-was-stolen-1.3475027see also Jesse Harrington, The Curse of Saint Laurence O’Toole, History Ireland (July/August 2018), https://www.historyireland.com/volume-26/issue-4-july-august-2018/the-curse-of-st-laurence-otoole/.

The Column of the Flagellation: Relic of the Scourging of Jesus

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http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/437497

The Flagellation, Girolamo Romanino, distemper and oil (?) on canvas (circa 1540).  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Of the many relics associated with the Passion of Jesus, the Column of the Flagellation (or the Scourging Post) is one of the more physically imposing.  Certainly, the significance of the Crown of Thorns, the Holy Lance, Holy Nails, pieces of the True Cross, and other first-class relics of the Passion cannot be understated.  However, the sheer size of the Column of the Flagellation lends it a physical presence unmatched by other relics of the Passion.

Three of the four gospels of the New Testament—those of Matthew, Mark, and John—refer to the Flagellation of Christ. In those tellings, Jesus is flogged by order of Pontius Pilate shortly before he is crucified.  Saint Mark‘s gospel, for example, states, “So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barab’bas; and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified.”[1]

Flagellation of Christ - Borgia (Met Museum)

Pax: Flagellation of Christ, Giovanni Borgia, partly enameled gold and gilt-silver frame (Milan, circa 1492-1503).  Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Photo by Reliquarian.

In art, the Flagellation of Christ, sometimes referred to as the Scourging at the Pillar, commonly depicts Jesus either tied or bound to a stone column being violently beaten, usually by two to four men.  Rainer Kahsnitz observes that “[a]s a whipping post, the Flagellation column was also one of the most important instruments of the Passion and regularly appears among the arma Christi,” literally the “weapons of Christ” or the instruments of the Passion.[2]  

Mass of Saint Gregory - Nuremburg

Mass of Saint Gregory (Die Messe des hl. Gregor) (detail), Master of the Saint Augustine Altarpiece (workshop) (circa 1500).  Germanische Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, Germany.  According to legend, Christ appeared to Pope Gregory as the Man of Sorrows while he was celebrating Mass.  In this depiction of the Mass of Saint Gregory, the arma Christi, or instruments of the Passion, are clearly evident.  The Column of the Flagellation can be seen directly to the right of Jesus.  Photo by Reliquarian.

Whipping or scourging was not an uncommon form of punishment under Roman Law at the time—nor, indeed, was crucifixion.[3]  James Jeffers explains that crucifixion as a form of execution was intended to deliver a slow and excruciatingly painful death.[4]  He writes, “The condemned person’s weight was supported for the most part by his arms.  Muscle spasms, cramps and insects added to the pain, and death usually came through gradual suffocation.”[5]  Jeffers further notes that “Christians did not use the cross as a symbol in their artwork for the first two centuries, perhaps because of the shame people associated with death by crucifixion.”[6]

Interestingly, the Column of the Flagellation is sometimes also included in depictions of the Nativity.  Its presence in these scenes foreshadows the Passion and serves as a reminder of Jesus’ eventual crucifixion.[7]  Kahsnitz notes that the connection to the Passion “is particularly obvious when the column appears above a grate, an allusion to the cellar in Pilate’s house where the Flagellation took place.”[8]

Nativity - Rogier van der Weyden

Bladelin Altarpiece (Middelburg Altarpiece), central panel, Rogier van der Weyden.  Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, Germany.  The Column of the Flagellation sometimes appears incongruously in depictions of the Nativity.  Its presence is meant to foreshadow the Passion.  The grate below the column alludes to Pontius Pilate’s cellar where the Flagellation occurred.  Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The Column of the Flagellation is said to have been discovered by Saint Helena during a visit to Jerusalem in the 4th century.  The relic was eventually transported to Italy, and in the early 13th century, the column was installed in the Church of Saint Praxedes (Santa Prassede) in Rome by the appropriately named Cardinal Giovanni Colonna.  Colonna had served as Pope Innocent III’s papal legate in the Holy Land during the Sixth Crusade and later served as a priest at Santa Prassede.[9]  Today, the Column of the Flagellation is kept in a small side chapel in the Church of Saint Praxedes, displayed in a glass reliquary.  Saint Charles Borromeo was said to have been fond of the church and was known to have celebrated Mass in the Chapel of the Column on visits to Rome.[10]

Column of the Flagellation - Santa Prassede

Column of the Flagellation, Church of Saint Praxedes (Santa Prassede), Rome, Italy.  Photo (cropped from original) courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


[1]  Mark 15:15

[2]  Rainer Kahsnitz, Carved Splendor 405 (2006).

[3]  See James S. Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era 158 (1999).

[4]  Id.  The term “excruciating” is quite appropriate here.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word derives from the Latin excruciare, meaning “to torment” or more literally “from the cross.”

[5]  Id.

[6]  Id.

[7]  Kahsnitz, supra note 2, at 405.

[8]  Id.

[9]  Catholic News Agency, “Pilgrims Venerate Pillar Where Christ Was Scourged,” Apr. 3, 2015, Nat’l Catholic Reg., https://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/pilgrims-venerate-relic-of-pillar-where-christ-was-scourged; Kathryn Blair Moore, The Architecture of the Christian Holy Land 110 (2017).

[10]  Joan Carroll Cruz, Relics 34 (1984).

 

Saint Roch: The Saint “Par Excellence” Against Disease

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Christian Jorhan, Heilige Rochus (Saint Roch), polychromed limewood (Landshut, Germany 1760/1770). Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremburg, Germany.  Photo by Reliquarian.

For centuries, the anxious and sick have invoked the saints to prevent or cure virtually every conceivable human affliction.  The intercession of Saint Blaise, for example, has traditionally been sought to relieve throat ailments while appeals to Saint Erasmus have sought help for intestinal disorders, stomach diseases, or birth pains.[1]  In the 14th century, the plague introduced a fearsome new threat to the health and well-being of European society, and a number of saints burnished or established reputations as protectors against the disease.  Chief among these was Saint Roch (also San Roque or San Rocco), a devout pilgrim who came to be regarded as “the saint par excellence against pestilence.”[2]

Roch Legends

Not much is definitively known about Saint Roch other than that he was born in Montepelier, France in the 13th or 14th century and that he tended to the sick during an outbreak of plague in Italy.[3]  According to legend, he left Montpelier at the age of 20 on a pilgrimage to Rome and, finding vast areas of Italy stricken with plague, he dedicated himself to the care of the sick.[4]  He visited various cities and regions—Rome, Rimini, Novara, Acquapendente—healing the sick merely by making the sign of the cross on them until he himself contracted the disease.[5]  Determined not to become a burden on any hospital, he resolved to straggle into the forest to die.[6]

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Saint Roch, oak, paint, and gilt (Normandy, France, early 16th century).  The Met Cloisters, New York.  Photo courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Death, however, eluded him.  Having entered the forest near Piacenza without food, he was fed by a dog that miraculously appeared everyday with a loaf of bread in its mouth.  Eventually, he was healed of plague by an angel and, after recovering, he returned to Piacenza where he cured many more people—as well as their sick cattle.[7]

It is unclear how Saint Roch eventually died.  Some stories claim he returned to Montpelier and was imprisoned by his uncle, who did not recognize him, and he eventually died in prison.  Other stories suggest he was arrested as a spy and died in captivity in Lombardy.  Regardless of how he died, many miracles were attributed to him shortly after his death.[8]  For example, he was credited with having ended an outbreak of plague in Constance in 1414 when the Council of Constance was then in session.[9]  

Saint Roch - Met Museum 2

Master of the Biberach Holy Kinship, Saint Roch and the Angel, limwood with traces of paint (Swabia, German, c. 1520).  The angel who healed Saint Roch of the plague can be seen here attending his wound.  Photo courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Saint Roch was initially buried in Montpelier, however, his relics were subsequently stolen in 1485 by wily Venetians intent on securing his powerful protection for their own city.[10]  A bustling commercial center, Venice suffered frequent bouts of plague at the time.  According to one account, “[t]he [Venetian] conspirators sailed to Montpelier under pretense of performing a pilgrimage, and carried off the body of the saint, with which they returned to Venice, and were received by the doge, the senate, and the clergy, and all the people, with inexpressible joy.”[11]  (The Venetians seemed to have a proclivity for stealing holy relics.  In 828, the Venetians similarly pilfered the body of Saint Mark from Alexandria, Egypt.  The perpetrators concealed their prize under layers of pork and cabbage to dissuade Muslim officials from inspecting their cargo.)  Today, the relics of Saint Roch may be found at Chiesa di San Rocco in Venice.  Saint Roch’s feast day is 16 August.

Roch Paintings . . . And Other Depictions in Art

Saint Roch’s attributes in art include a small leg wound, a dog carrying a loaf of bread, and pilgrim paraphernalia.[12]  In Catholic iconography, his emblems are probably among the least harrowing.  Admittedly, there is something unsettling about the plague wound he is frequently shown displaying in his groin, but the wound is far less gruesome than the attributes of many other saints—Saint Erasmus’s intestine-coiled windlass and Saint Lucy’s plate of eyeballs immediately spring to mind.  

The wound, known as a bubo, is the result of swollen lymph glands caused by Yersinia pestis, the bacterium responsible for bubonic plague.[13]  Commonly transmitted by fleas, the bacterium quickly travels to the lymph nodes once it enters the bloodstream.  There, the bacterium multiplies causing the lymph nodes to swell into a painful mass.  According to Wendy Orent, these buboes can “turn black and rotten, and begin to slough, revealing and destroying tissue and muscles, sometimes down to the bone.  Other times, the buboes ripen and discharge large quantities of foul-smelling pus.”[14]  Although buboes can occur in the neck or armpits, Saint Roch is commonly shown with a bubo in his upper thigh.

IMG_3553

Christian Jorhan, Heilige Rochus (Saint Roch) (detail), polychromed limewood (Landshut, Germany, 1760/1770). Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremburg, Germany.  In this detail, Saint Roch points at the bubo caused by bubonic plague clearly evident in his leg.  Photo by Reliquarian.

Representations of Saint Roch also frequently show him accompanied by the miraculous dog credited with feeding him in the forest.  Interestingly, as Phyllis McGinley points out in her charming book Saint-Watching, dogs make surprisingly few appearances in stories about the saints.[15]  Perhaps that is what makes Saint Roch’s canine companion so memorable.  Or perhaps the image of a kindly dog with a loaf of bread in its mouth simply cannot fail to enchant.  In any event, Saint Roch’s dog is undoubtedly one of the more delightful emblems of any saint.  

IMG_3554

Christian Jorhan, Heilige Rochus (Saint Roch) (detail), polychromed limewood (Landshut, Germany, 1760/1770). Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremburg, Germany.  A miraculous dog is said to have brought Saint Roch loaves of bread in the forest.  Photo by Reliquarian.

Lastly, Saint Roch is often depicted in pilgrims’ clothes, alluding to his pilgrimage to Rome.  Sometimes his status as a pilgrim is indicated by a scallop shell pinned either to his hat or his cloak.  Seashells were a common symbol of pilgrimage, and several other saints, including Saint James the Greater, share this attribute in art.  (The seashell initially indicated a pilgrimage to Saint James’s shrine at Compostela, Spain, but it later developed into a more generic symbol of pilgrimage.)[16]  Sometimes, however, either in addition to or instead of a seashell, Saint Roch may be represented with crossed keys on his clothes.  The crossed keys are a reference to Saint Peter and, by extension, Rome.  Saint Peter was the first Bishop of Rome, and his primary symbol in art is a key or set of keys representing the keys to heaven.[17]  (In scenes known as the traditio clavum, Christ is shown giving Saint Peter the keys of heaven)].  Other symbols of pilgrimage could include a broad-brimmed hat, a staff, and a small purse.[18]

Saint Roch - Stained Glass Window

Stained Glass Panel with Saint Roch, the van Merle Family Arms, and a Donor (detail), pot metal, white glass, vitreous paint, and silver stain (Cologne, Germany, 16th century).  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  In this detail, note Saint Roch’s pilgrim staff and the crossed keys on his hat.  Crossed keys denoted a pilgrimage to Rome.  Photo courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Roch Solid

Since at least the early 15th century, Saint Roch has been recognized as a powerful protector against plague and other infectious diseases.  Unsurprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has revived interest in Saint Roch and other saints associated with outbreaks of disease, including Saint Rosalia and Saint Corona.[19]  For some, however, Saint Roch is and always will remain “the saint par excellence against pestilence.”[20]  

High Altar - Church of San Rocco

High Altar with Tomb of Saint Roch, Chiesa di San Rocco (Church of Saint Roch), Venice, Italy.  Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


[1] See, e.g., Rosa Giorgi, Saints in Art 66–68, 119–20 (Thomas Michael Hartmann trans., Stefano Zuffi ed., 2002)

[2] 3 Butler’s Lives of the Saints 338 (Herbert J. Thurston, S.J. & Donald Attwater eds., 2d ed. 1956).

[3] Id.

[4]  Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.  

[7]  Id. (“W]hen he was convalescent he returned to Piacenza and miraculously cured many more folk, as well as their sick cattle.”)

[8] Id.

[9] Anna Jameson, Sacred and Legendary Art 36 (1887).

[10] Butler’s Lives of the Saintssupra note 2.

[11] Jameson, supra note 9, at 36.

[12] Giorgi, supra note 1, at 320.

[13] Wendy Orent, Plague: The Mysterious Past and Terrifying Future of the World’s Most Dangerous Disease (2004).

[14] Id.

[15] Phyllis McGinley, Saint-Watching 75 (1969).

[16] Giorgi, supra note 1, at 320.

[17] Id. at 297–310.

[18] See, e.g., Jean Sorabella, “Pilgrimage in Medieval Europe,” (Apr. 2011) Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/pilg/hd_pilg.htm.

[19] See, e.g., Bishop Jugis Asks for Intercessory Prayer to End Coronavirus, Catholic News Herald (Mar. 16, 2020), https://catholicnewsherald.com/88-news/fp/5575-bishop-jugis-asks-for-intercessory-prayer-to-end-coronavirus.

[20] Butler’s Lives of the Saintssupra note 2, at 338.