This work is somewhat isolated amidst the various collections of this museum, since it comes from the old Arquivo das Congregações Religiosas (Archive of the Religious Congregations), in Lisbon. Representing St. Charles Borromeo giving communion to a victim of the plague, it is an 18th-century painting by an unidentified Italian author.
The Counter-Reformation brought with it the worship of new missionary saints, heroes and martyrs of a Christianity that sought to emerge resurgent and victorious over the irreparable schism of Protestantism, the religious wars and the subsequent iconoclasm.
A considerable number of priests and indoctrinators of the congregations that were generated in the wake of the dogmatism of the Tridentine spirit were canonised by the Pope and registered among the vast hagiographic repertoire of the liturgical calendar.
St. Charles Borromeo, originating from a noble family and a nephew of Pope Pius IV, was the Archbishop of Milan, a cardinal, and one of the main defenders of the Counter-Reformation until his death in 1584. During the plague that ravaged Milan in 1575, he played a fundamental role, heroically looking after the victims of the plague, organising Lazarettos (places of quarantine) and requisitioning monks and priests to serve as nurses. His invocation replaced that of the saints who had been the protectors against the plague in previous centuries, namely St. Sebastian and St. Rock.
In a dynamic composition raised above the spectator’s angle of vision, the figure seen in the foreground, between two acolytes with lit candles, is the cardinal holding a ciborium in his left hand, whilst offering the host with the other hand to a sick, naked and kneeling man.
With the light falling on the right shoulder and arm of this victim of the plague, the painter accentuates the clothes of the saint and one of his acolytes through the use of thick impastos of white in the lacework, giving the picture an essential impression of great drama. In the same way, in the middle ground, the victims of the plague are foreshortened, being concealed by the bluish darkness of the background. Crowning the composition are four incense-bearing angels, with pink-coloured carnations, enveloped in a celestial light.