St. Charles Borromeo Prays for the Plague-Stricken of Milan

The New Cathedral, Salamanca

In 1576-78 Milan was in the grip of a terrible plague that killed many and left the survivors penniless. The archbishop, Charles Borromeo, worked tirelessly to relieve the people's suffering, gave everything he had for the purchase of food for the poor, and himself worked day and night to distribute the food that he was able to obtain. (Butler, 260}. He also led a procession seeking divine assistance, as is pictured here.

The iconography of the painting borrows from that of the Deësis. Mary is on the left and on the right Borromeo stands in for John the Baptist. With the nail in his right hand he joins the angels in reminding Christ of the instruments by which he saved mankind through his sacrifice on the Cross: the scourge, the crown of thorns, the spear, the chalice of his blood, the cross. Most notable is the large church bell carried by the angel with the scourge. The bell appears in at least one image of Jesus' death, but in addition it is what tolls for the dead in medieval Christian culture. It thus joins the deaths shown below to that of the Savior.

The nail in Borromeo's hand is the "Holy Nail" preserved in Milan's cathedral and believed to be among those used in the Crucifixion, another symbol linking Christ's sufferings to those of his people in the city.

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Photographed at the cathedral by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.