Saint Roch: The Iconography

In Montpellier, in Occitanie, the burial of blessed Confessor Roch, who saved many cities of Italy from the plague by means of the sign of the Cross. Later his body was translated to Venice and placed with great honors in the church that is consecrated in his name. Roman Martyrology for August 16

A great many images of St. Roch follow the pattern in the picture at right. Dressed as a pilgrim and holding a walking staff, he typically points to a lesion in his thigh. His hat will feature an emblem of pilgrimage, sometimes the shell for Compostela and sometimes the crossed keys for Rome. At his feet will be a dog with a loaf of bread and an angel with a small jar. Many images leave out the angel, but few dispense with the dog.

These identifiers relate to a key period in the saint's life. In his youth he had distributed his inheritance to the poor (image) and left his home in Montpellier to go on various pilgrimages, where he discovered that he could cure people of the plague simply by touching and blessing them with the sign of the cross (image). But eventually he contracted the plague himself while working in the hospital in Piacenza.1 To avoid infecting others he took to the forest, where he made himself a shelter from leaves and boughs and prayed for help in his distress. (In Diedo's Vita the prayer seems intended as a model for readers to imitate in their own distress.2)

In answering the prayer God first caused a spring of water to open up beside the shelter (image). Second, a dog came regularly to bring him bread from its master's table. This is the dog seen in so many portraits. Finally, after several years an angel appeared and told Roch his illness was to be cured and he was to return to his home in Montpellier and there complete his earthly journey. In some images the angel addresses Roch while pointing to Heaven (example), in others he has arrived with a small jar of medicine, as in the picture above right, and in still others he kneels down to treat the lesion directly (example).

Obeying the angel's command, Roch returned to Montpellier, but he was mistaken for a spy and cast into prison (image), where five years later he died and his soul was gloriously taken into Heaven. An angel left a tablet under the head announcing in golden letters that "who that calleth meekly to St. Rocke he shall not be hurt with any hurt of pestilence." A shortened version of this message appears in some images, such as the second one shown on the right.

In many images Roch is paired with St. Sebastian (example). Paul the Deacon's History of the Lombards credited the intercession of that saint for the end of a plague in Pavia in the 7th century.

Prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University

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A santo in Furelos, Spain (See description page)


Roch, the dog, and the angel with the tablet (See description page)


A memorial to the saint's help to a village in France during a plague (See description page)

MORE IMAGES

  • Late 16th century (estimate): Madonna and Child with SS. Sebastian, Roch, and Monica.

DATES

  • Farmer estimates St. Roch's dates as 1350-1380. Butler has his death date as 1378.
  • Neither of the sources in the Acta Sanctorum gives a date for Roch's death, but Caxton specifies August 16, which is his feast day.

NAMES

  • Some English sources spell his name "Rock."
  • In Italian he is San Rocco.

HAGIOGRAPHY

NOTES

1 It seems clear that this was specifically the bubonic plague. In Caxton it attacks the saint first in his armpits. In the Latin vitae, it arrives as a fever followed by a knife-like pain in his "hip" (coxa), a detail that the artists consistently take to mean his upper thigh. Both fever and swellings in the armpits and groin mark the onset of this disease.

2 Acta Sanctorum August vol. 3, 403.