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. 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.”
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. 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. 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. Determined not to become a burden on any hospital, he resolved to straggle into the forest to die.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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.” (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. 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. 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.” Although buboes can occur in the neck or armpits, Saint Roch is commonly shown with a bubo in his upper thigh.
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. 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.
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.) 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. (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.
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. For some, however, Saint Roch is and always will remain “the saint par excellence against pestilence.”
 See, e.g., Rosa Giorgi, Saints in Art 66–68, 119–20 (Thomas Michael Hartmann trans., Stefano Zuffi ed., 2002)
 3 Butler’s Lives of the Saints 338 (Herbert J. Thurston, S.J. & Donald Attwater eds., 2d ed. 1956).
 Id. (“W]hen he was convalescent he returned to Piacenza and miraculously cured many more folk, as well as their sick cattle.”)
 Anna Jameson, Sacred and Legendary Art 36 (1887).
 Butler’s Lives of the Saints, supra note 2.
 Jameson, supra note 9, at 36.
 Giorgi, supra note 1, at 320.
 Wendy Orent, Plague: The Mysterious Past and Terrifying Future of the World’s Most Dangerous Disease (2004).
 Phyllis McGinley, Saint-Watching 75 (1969).
 Giorgi, supra note 1, at 320.
 Id. at 297–310.
 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.
 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.
 Butler’s Lives of the Saints, supra note 2, at 338.