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.”
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 armaChristi,” literally the “weapons of Christ” or the instruments of the Passion.
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. James Jeffers explains that crucifixion as a form of execution was intended to deliver a slow and excruciatingly painful death. 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.” 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.”
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. 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.”
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. 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.
Column of the Flagellation, Church of Saint Praxedes (Santa Prassede), Rome, Italy. Photo (cropped from original) courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
 Mark 15:15
 Rainer Kahsnitz, Carved Splendor 405 (2006).
 See James S. Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era 158 (1999).
 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.”
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. 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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.) 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.
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.
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.”
High Altar with Tomb of Saint Roch, Chiesa di San Rocco (Church of Saint Roch), Venice, Italy. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
 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).
Anthony van Dyck, Saint Rosalie Interceding for the Plague-stricken of Palermo, oil on canvas (1624). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo via the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Great Plague, or Black Death, of the 14th century was one of the most lethal pandemics in human history. The plague was believed to have entered Europe from the Crimean port of Kaffa (modern-day Feodosia) in 1346. From there, it spread to Constantinople, Sicily, Genoa, and Provence before infiltrating the rest of the continent. The Shorter Cambridge Medieval History describes its initial progress as “like the advance of a prairie fire, destroying and inescapable.” Dispersed along well-worn trade routes, the Black Death killed nearly one-third of Europe’s population between 1347 and 1352—an estimated 25 million people. In his book The Great Transition, Bruce Campbell observes that “[b]oth proportionately and absolutely it therefore probably ranks as the single greatest public health crisis in recorded European history.”
The tragedy of the plague, however, did not conclude with this initial wave of fatalities. The plague endured for another three hundred years, returning approximately every ten years to ravage European society anew. Dread of the plague manifested itself in a number of ways. In art, for example, the danse macabre became a popular motif. In these scenes personifications of death, frequently in the form of jaunty skeletons, escorted individuals from all stations in life to their graves. In religion, special saints were invoked for their protection against the Black Death. Chief among these were Saint Roch and Saint Edmund. Saint Roch was often shown pointing at a bubo (a wound caused by the bubonic plague) in his leg and accompanied by a dog carrying a piece of bread. Meanwhile, Saint Edmund, who was King of East Anglia, is frequently portrayed with a crown, an orb, a scepter, or arrows (his death involved a volley of arrows). Other saints, however, were also believed to protect against pandemics and the plague. The COVID-19 outbreak has renewed interest of some of these saints, two of whom are described below.
Christian Jorhan, Heilige Rochus (Saint Roch) (detail), polychromed limewood (1760/1770). Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremburg, Germany. In this detail, Saint Roch points at a wound caused by bubonic plague clearly evident in his leg. Photo by Reliquarian.
Saint Corona – Patron Saint of Lumberjacks . . . and Epidemics?
Saint Corona is believed to have been martyred in the second or third century in particularly gruesome fashion. Tied between two bent palm trees, she was torn apart when the two trees were released. She later became a patron saint of lumberjacks. In 997, King Otto III translated Saint Corona’s relics to Aachen Cathedral where the relics remained, buried beneath a slab of stone in the cathedral’s floor, until the early 20th century. Around 1912, the relics were transferred to a reliquary shrine created by the famous Aachen goldsmith Bernhard Witte.
Master of the Palazzo Venezia Madonna, Saint Corona, tempera and gold on panel (c. 1350). National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark. Note the crown she holds in her left hand and the two palm leaves she holds in her right. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Experts from the cathedral’s treasury had been working to restore Saint Corona’s reliquary in preparation for an exhibition on goldsmithery when the novel coronavirus emerged last year. The pandemic has lent new relevance to Saint Corona, whom cathedral officials allege is also a protector against infectious diseases. Some scholars, however, question Saint Corona’s historical association with pandemics and infectious diseases. Regardless, her name alone has earned her an inescapable connection with the COVID-19 outbreak. Notably, the names of the saint and the coronavirus share the same Latin root, corona, which means crown.
Coronaviruses derive their name from the protein spikes that protrude from their surfaces; when viewed under a microscope, these spikes give the appearance of a crown. Saint Corona’s name relates to a vision of crowns she had near the time of her death. According to legend, Saint Corona comforted a Roman soldier—the future Saint Victor—who was being tortured for his faith. The Roman Martyrology states, “As Corona . . . was proclaiming him happy for his fortitude in his sufferings, she saw two crowns falling from heaven, one for Victor, the other for herself. She related this to all present and was torn to pieces between two trees; Victor was beheaded.” Saint Corona’s feast day is 14 May.
High Altar of Aachen Cathedral, Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle), Germany. The relics of Saint Corona were interred beneath a black stone slab to the left of the high altar in 997. The relics were later transferred to a golden reliquary designed by Bernhard Witte in the early 20th century. Photo by Reliquarian.
Saint Rosalia – Protector Against the Plague
Another saint associated with pandemics has also been in the news lately. On the eve of an exhibition celebrating its 150th anniversary, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has been forced to close its doors to the public due to the coronavirus pandemic. A centerpiece of its anniversary exhibition, “Making the Met: 1870-2020,” was to be a painting by Anthony van Dyck titled “Saint Rosalie Interceding for the Plague-stricken of Palermo.”
The painting, one of the first acquired by the museum after its founding, depicts Saint Rosalia ascending to heaven accompanied by a tumbled passel of cherubim. An article by Jason Farago in the New York Times notes that at first glance, the work could easily be confused for an Assumption of the Virgin due to the lack of visual clues clearly identifying its central figure as Rosalia rather than the Virgin Mary. Farago writes, “Unlike Peter with his keys or Catherine with her wheel, this little-known saint did not have a set of standard attributes until the plague struck.” The plague referenced was an outbreak of bubonic plague that beset Palermo in 1624.
Upon closer inspection, van Dyck’s painting does offer some clues to the saint’s identity. Farago suggests van Dyck had to invent an iconography to identify Saint Rosalia, who was credited with ending the 1624 flare-up. One cherub, for example, bears a wreath of pink and white roses which it is preparing to place on Saint Rosalia’s head. The roses are a reference to the saint’s name “Rosalia.” Another cherub holds a more macabre emblem of the saint: an umber brown cranium which the cherub grasps casually in its left hand. The skull is Saint Rosalia’s, a reference to the saint’s relics, which were unearthed near Palermo during the outbreak of plague in the city.
Anthony van Dyck, Saint Rosalie Interceding for the Plague-stricken of Palermo (detail), oil on canvas (1624). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo via the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
According to legend, a local Palmeritan woman was healed of the plague after praying fervently to Saint Rosalia. Later, the saint revealed the location of her bones to the woman in a dream. The bones were subsequently discovered in a cave on Mount Pellegrino near Palermo. Hagiographies of the saint suggest that Rosalia fled to Mount Pellegrino to avoid a marriage arranged for her by her father and that she changed caverns frequently, guided by an angel, to avoid discovery. In van Dyck’s painting, Mount Pellegrino is clearly visible in the background, as is the harbor of Palermo.
Today, the Festino di Santa Rosalia, which takes place in July, is one of the largest festivals in Italy. At present, however, it is still unclear whether the festival will proceed as planned as many Italians remain in quarantine. Meanwhile, “Saint Rosalie Interceding for the Plague-stricken of Palermo” also remains in quarantine amidst the coronavirus outbreak. The Metropolitan Museum does not plan to reopen until July at the earliest.
 2 C.W. Previté-Orton, The Shorter Cambridge Medieval History 847 (1952).
 Id.; Bruce M. S. Campbell, The Great Transition 307 (2016).