Saint Rosalia of Palermo: The Iconography

SEPTEMBER 4
The sculpture above exemplifies one type of image of St. Rosalia that takes its cue from her legend. As it is told in Cascini's 1631 vita she lived atop a high and nearly inaccessible mountain in a tiny hollow, "hardly big enough for her little body, more like a garment than a cell."1 In this image type the saint is recumbent in a space where it would be difficult even to sit up, accompanied by the usual accoutrements of the contemplative: a crucifix, a skull, and a book. The flowers and the garland of roses in the images are gifts from the Virgin and Child, who would come and speak with her from time to time.

Another common iconographic type is a portrait of the saint standing with the garland and holding the crucifix and skull, as at right. Also common are the prayer beads that the legend says were in her hand when she died.2

Some images, such as the second picture at right, show the saint walking the 40 miles from her wealthy family's home to a mountaintop near Bivona, carrying a pilgrim's staff and accompanied by angels. Later the angels led her from that mountain to the one with the rock hollow. The second mountain, then known as Erectense, towered high above her native Palermo and was at the time covered in dark forest and nearly inaccessible. In some narrative images the angels are more clearly portrayed as guides showing Rosalia the way (example).

After Rosalia died her tiny cave became a place of pilgrimage and the Erectense came to be known as Monte Pellegrino ("Mount Pilgrim"). Pilgrimages became especially frequent after 1624, when a procession in her honor was thought to have stayed the course of a plague in Palermo. The grateful city made her its principal patron and had a church built over the cave (Butler, III, 487).

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

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SHOWN ABOVE:

Sculpture in the church of San Giovanni dei Ermiti, Palermo, Sicily (see description page).

OTHER PICTURES:


St. Rosalia with the four attributes common in her images: crucifix, skull, rosary, and crown of roses (See description page)


Crowned with roses, 18th century painting (See description page)


An 18th-century fresco with just the garland and crucifix (See description page)

Further images: The volume of the Acta Sanctorum that covers St. Rosalia (published 1748) includes a large number of engravings based on contemporary images of the saint in Palermo and Bivona, with maps and diagrams of her two cells.

DATES

  • Died 1160

HAGIOGRAPHY

  • In English, Butler (III, 486-87) has a brief discussion of St. Rosalia.
  • In Latin, see Acta Sanctorum, September vol. 2, 278-414 and especially the Vita by Giordano Cascini, 381-387.

NOTES

1 Acta Sanctorum, September vol. 2, 382-83.

2 Ibid., 383.