Tu de peste huiusmodi
Nos defende et custodi
- Motet for Saint Sebastian, Guillaume Dufay
In these times of a global pandemic, a lot of people seek out something topical on which to turn their attentions. Some find this topicality in books, in particular Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron, but also Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year, and, in Norway, Sigrid Undset's trilogy about Kristin Lavrandsdatter. Interest in historical pandemics is rekindled as well, and this is particularly the case for the Black Death, which has resulted in an increased dissemination of the first volume of the journal The Medieval Globe, namely Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World edited by Monica Green (2014).
For me as a saint scholar, there is one particular outcome of this quest for topicality that has caught my interest, namely the attention given to the relatively obscure Saint Corona, a martyr of uncertain date who suffered along with Saint Victor (one of at least three soldier saints with that name, and the least well known among them). The interest in Saint Corona must in large part be ascribed to the likeness of her name with that of the corona virus of the ongoing pandemic, and this similarity has led to Corona being talked about as the patron saint of epidemics. This patronage, however, is the result of our tendency as human being to seek out patterns even where there are none, and the inaccuracy of this claim has been discussed by Dr. Patricia Cullum on Twitter (see this thread), and Dan Evon has addressed the matter on snopes. This renewed attention concerning Saint Corona has also resulted in her relics being brought out from storage at Aachen Cathedral, so as to make it available for pilgrims.
The case of Saint Corona is interesting for many reasons. First of all, it shows the constant relevance of saints, also in our modern times. Secondly, it is a good example of how saints evolve according to the needs of the living. The debate concerning the patronage of Saint Corona has mostly focussed on the fact that she is not historically considered as a patron against epidemics, and that the hope in her role as a plague saint is a modern one. However, while it is important to have a historically accurate understanding of the cult of Saint Corona, it is also necessary to keep in mind that the patronages and the cults of saints undergo changes whenever the need arises. Therefore, it is true that Saint Corona, historically, is is not the patron saint of epidemics. But we must also be aware that the designation of saintly patronage is not subject to any specific religious authority, and in many cases the attribution of a particular patronage is the result of pressure from below. In other words, if enough people believe that Saint so-and-so can intervene against a particular sickness, people will start flocking to that saint for healing, and cures will be attributed to the intervention of Saint so-and-so. This means, in turn, that if the mere resemblance of the name of the saint with the name of the virus results in people turning to Saint Corona for cures, she will become one of the several saints whose catalogue of patronages includes epidemics. The attention given to Saint Corona reminds us that saints are not static. While their earthly lives might be given a more or less concrete time-frame, they are also believed to continue intervening in affairs of this world after their death.
Skive Church, Northern Jutland, Denmark, c.1500
There are several saints who have acquired new patronages at various points in the course of the history of their cults. One example is one of the most famous plague saints of all, namely Saint Sebastian. Sebastian is of uncertain historicity, but his death is usually dated to the reign of Diocletian, and a cult appears to have been in place by the second half of the fourth century. The early trajectory of his cult is obscure, but in his Historia Langobardorum of the late 700s, Paulus Diaconus recounts how a plague in the seventh century was averted in Pavia when an altar to Saint Sebastian was erected in the city. This anecdote was later repeated by Jacobus de Voragine in his Legenda Aurea from the 1260s, and it is likely due to the popularity of Legenda Aurea that Sebastian became an immensely famous plague saint in the course of the Black Death. Sebastian was often named among the Fourteen Holy Helpers, a group of saints whose members varied in different geographies. This group emerged in the Rhineland in the early stages of the Black Death, and it was a collective of saints who were called upon in crises, and Sebastian's frequent inclusion in this group testifies to his popularity.
Saint Sebastian's plague patronage is similar to the modern attributions to Saint Corona as a patron saint of epidemics, in that it is a patronage that appears to have been acquired after several centuries. Moreover, while the idea that Saint Corona is a saint against epidemics due to her name, it is often believed that the patronage of Saint Sebastian against the plague can be ascribed to the imagery of him being perforated by arrows, as the imagery is believed to invoke the idea that the god Apollon sent plagues by shooting pestilent arrows to the earth. Whether the origin of Sebastian's plague patronage lies the Apollonian imagery or not, the fact that this association is sometimes made points to an important aspect of how patronages are attributed: Humans look for patterns.
Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian
Amiens - BM - ms. Lescalopier 017, f.250v, 1415-20, Champagne
(Courtesy of enluminures.culture.fr)
In addition to Saint Sebastian, there are also several other saints who are believed to assist in times of plague. One particularly important late medieval example is the cult of Saint Roch (d.1327), the son of the governor of Montpellier who is said to have wandered from city to city to heal the plague-stricken, and who eventually died in prison. It is important to note that Roch, a historical person, died before the Black Death, which serves as a useful reminder that plague was a perennial problem in the Middle Ages. Saint Roch's patronage of plague victims was directly connected with his earthly life, and this catapulted him into fame at a relatively early point, and his relevance continued throughout the Middle Ages, as evidenced in the wall-painting below from Northern Denmark, dated to c.1500. Here we see the typical depiction of Roch indicating a plague sore on his inner thigh, attended to by an angel. In several cases, as seen in the illumination further down, Saint Roch is depicted together with a dog. It is interesting, though perhaps not indicative of an iconographical connection, that the angel and dog are elements from the biblical story in the now-apocryphal Book of Tobit, where Tobias goes in search for a cure for his father Tobit who has become blind.
Saint Roch (on the right) showing his plague sore to the onlooker
Skive Church, Northern Jutland, c.1500
Saint Roch with angel and dog
Châlons-en-Champagne - BM - ms. 0337. f.144, book of hours, 1506
(Courtesy of enluminures.culture.fr)
Another plague saint who is more limited in her geographical reach but of immense popularity is Saint Rosalia of Palermo, a twelfth-century anchoress who became a plague saint in the seventeenth century, when a vision instructed the citizens of Palermo to collect her neglected relics and parade them around the city. As with Saint Corona today, the life of the saint and the attribution of a plague patronage happened late. And as with the recent surge in the interest in Saint Corona, Saint Rosalia also demonstrates the continued relevance of saints in times of crisis.
As in the cases mentioned here, and presumably in other cases as well, the idea of Saint Corona as a plague saint might very well become a reality, because that is often how such patronages are designated. Moreover, that there so far seems to be little more than the name of the saint and the name of the virus to connect the saint with the patronage, we see in the cases of plague saints that not much more is needed to create the necessary association that initiates a saint's career as a patron against epidemics.
Antonio Borrelli, "Santi Vittore e Corona", santiebeati.it
Madeline Chambers and Gareth Jones, "German cathedral dusts off relics of St Corona, patron of epidemics", Reuters, March 25, 2020
Dan Evon, "Is Corona the Patron Saint of Plagues?", Snopes, March 24, 2020
David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford University Press, 2011
Monica Green (ed.), Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death, volume 1 of The Medieval Globe, 2014
Lorenzo Tondo, "Palermo pins hopes on patron saint to rid Italy of coronavirus", The Guardian, March 13, 2020