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).