Saint Roch: the Plague, the Cult and the Image

A brief journey through the saint's iconography and the works of the Museu de São Roque dedicated to him.

The Museu de São Roque is located in the church and the professed house of São Roque (Saint Roch), former headquarters of the Society of Jesus in Portugal, which, in 1768, became the headquarters of Santa Casa da Misericórdia Lisboa, a institution founded in 1498 to provide social assistance to the population of the Portuguese capital. It shows an important set of works of art, many of them related to the saint's iconography, a collection that has grown over time.

With this exhibition, the São Roque Museum remembers the role of this saint as a protector of plagues in Europe.

Apparition of the Angel to Saint Roch (c.1584) by Gaspar DiasMuseu de São Roque


The cult of Saint Roch arises in northern Italy in the second half of the 15th century. Devotion to this saint, as a protector of plagues, had a rapid expansion in this territory.

Saint Roch (1518) by Paolo MorandoThe National Gallery, London

His relics were located in 1469 in Voghera, in the hospital of Saint Henry, located on the pilgrimage route between the south of France and Rome.

Saints Nicholas of Tolentino, Roch, Sebastian, and Bernardino of Siena, with Kneeling Donors (1481) by Benozzo Gozzoli (Benozzo di Lese di Sandro)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the same year, the neighboring city of Brescia built the first chapel dedicated to the saint that they evoked against the plague. Thus, appears one more holy protector of plagues, in a time where the main devotion was Saint Sebastian.

Three Saints: Roch, Anthony Abbot, and Lucy Three Saints: Roch, Anthony Abbot, and Lucy (ca. 1513) by Cima da Conegliano (Giovanni Battista Cima)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In 1478, Brescia suffered a violent outbreak of plague. The city was ruled by Venice, represented by Francesco Diedo, who would become the saint's first biographer.

Plate 38: View of the facade of the church of St. Roch and at left the facade of the School of St. Roch, Venice, 1703, from "The buildings and views of Venice" (Le fabriche e vedute di Venezia) (1703) by Luca CarlevarisThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

In 1484, another outbreak of plague hit Venice and the relics in Voghera are transferred to Venice, according to legend, stolen by a Friar named Mauro.

In 1489, the Scuola Grande of Saint Roch was founded, the headquarters of a brotherhood created to assist the population in times of plague.

Apparition of the Angel to Saint Roch (c.1584) by Gaspar DiasMuseu de São Roque


The cult of San Roque - relatively popular in Venice - spreads in Europe through the Imhoff family and their commercial contacts via the Mainz axis.

Saint Roch (c. 1500) by Albrecht DürerNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

The Imhoffs will sponsor the cult of the saint in Nuremberg and, from there, they will spread the cult along the axis of Mainz: Cologne, Leuven, the Netherlands, Paris and Rouen.

Sint-Rochus (ca. 1500) by Holthuys, Dries and Holthuys, DriesRijksmuseum

The cult of Saint Roch appeared in the Netherlands at the end of the 15th century in manuscripts and liturgical missals.

Saints Sebastian, Anthony and Roch (n.d.) by Jean DuvetThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

In 1494, with the support of the Carmel Order, were published in France the account of the life of the saint by Jean Phelipot and two editions of the account of Francesco Diedo.

Apparition of the Angel to Saint Roch (c.1584) by Gaspar DiasMuseu de São Roque


Lisbon, like most major commercial cities, like Seville or Venice, was devasteted several times by plague outbreaks in the 16th century.

Entrada2 (2009) by MSRMuseu de São Roque

In 1505-1506, an outbreak of plague hit Lisbon. Two members of the Imhoff family die in the Portuguese capital. In 1517, an opening in the wall called “Postigo do Conde” acquires the name “Postigo de São Roque” (Saint Roch).

King John III (1550 - 1560) by Around 1490Museu de São Roque

Due to a new outbreak of plague, king João III order to instal a pestiferous cemetery next to the Saint Roch wicket in 1523. There, a shrine dedicated to the saint would also have been built there.

Apparition of the Angel to Saint Roch (c.1584) by Gaspar DiasMuseu de São Roque

The shrine was ceded in 1553 to the Jesuits who built their Professed House, the seat of the entire Portuguese province, which included its vast colonial empire, in Asia and America.


The São Roque Museum, exhibits one of the oldest pictorial narratives dedicated to the saint, dating from 1525. Composed of four paintings, each with two scenes. It is based on the written account published by Francesco Diedo.

Nativity and Adolescence of São Roque (c. 1520) by Jorge Leal (?); Cristóvão de Utreque (?)Museu de São Roque

In this first painting, we can clearly see two scenes, a main one, the birth and a secondary one, the departure of his parents' home to dedicate himself to the poor.

The saint was born in Montpellier with a red cross on his chest, which will have given him the name: rouge - Roche.

The father recognizes the child's paternity, the fact is being proved by two witnesses, a reminiscent of the Roman law.

The clothes and objects indicate that it was a wealthy family.

The convalescent mother takes an eggnog, which was very common in postpartum recovery.

The Portuguese-African ivory spoon indicates the status of the family.

In the secondary scene, Saint Roch distributes his family wealth among the poor, repeating the example of Saint Francis Assisi. Already wearing pilgrim's robes, he embarks on a pilgrimage to Rome.

Miraculous cure of the Cardinal and recognition of the miracle by the Pope (ca.1520) by Jorge Leal (?); Cristóvão de Utreque (?)Museu de São Roque

In Rome, he heals an English cardinal sick with plague and who is on the verge of death. His healing was considered a miracle by those who witnessed the scene.

At the foot of the bed, the galley - the cardinal's hat -, a container with marmalade, a bowl with pomegranate berries, another remedy against the plague, with an ivory Portuguese-African spoon, and two bottles with ointments.

On the wall, there is a small panel representing Calvary that, interestingly, follows the norm of representation that would be approved decades later at the Council of Trent (1563).

Now healed, the cardinal, with the cross marked on his forehead, introduces Saint Roch to the Pope, telling him about his miraculous healing.

Stay in Piacenza and Retreat in the Forest (c. 1520) by Jorge Leal (?); Cristóvão de Utreque (?)Museu de São Roque

With the gift of curing the plague patients, Roch goes to Piacenza and assists the patients in the local hospital, but he himself ends up contracting the plague, being forced to leave the hospital.

The bubonic plague is manifested with a swelling in the lymph nodes, which appeared mainly in the groins and armpits, generating the famous bubo's that, in some days, became wounds and together with other symptoms, such as fever and vomiting, led to death in less than a week.

The plague also affected young and healthy people. It is estimated that between 30% to 60% of Europe's population died in the most severe years, in the middle of the 14th century.

Until the 17th century, there continued to be outbreaks of plague on the European continent, especially in the south.

So Saint Roch takes refuge outside the city. A dog brings him a bread every day to feed him, a legend imported from Saint Paul the Anchorite. An angel healed his wound. Gothardo - the dog's owner - found him, becoming his first disciple.

Prision and Beatific Death of São Roque (c. 1520) by Jorge Leal (?); Cristóvão de Utreque (?)Museu de São Roque

Final scenes: prison and death of Saint Roch.

In the way to his homeland, in the south of France, he was arrested near the Lake Maggiore, being accused of being a spy.

A judge condemns Saint Roch to prison.

After his death, he was recognized by his maternal family in prison through the stigma with which he was born in the chest.

Apparition of the Angel to Saint Roch (c.1584) by Gaspar DiasMuseu de São Roque


The iconographic novelty of the boards led to the spread of his pictorial cycle.

Stay in Piacenza and Retreat in the Forest (c. 1540 - c.1560) by Master of the São Cristóvão AltarpieceMuseu de São Roque

The same iconography of the wooden panel is here represented directly in another pictorial cycle about thirty years later, also exhibited at the São Roque Museum. The composition remained, but Mannerist aesthetic elements were added.

Saint Roch healing the Cardinal (1584) by Francisco de MatosMuseu de São Roque

The iconography of the boards, here represented on the tiles of the chapel dedicated to the saint, located in the Church of São Roque.

Note the similarity of this scene regarding the healing of the English cardinal.

Credits: Story

Equipa do Museu de São Roque

Margarida Montenegro
Director of Culture Santa Casa da Misericórdia de Lisboa

Teresa Morna
Director Museu de São Roque

Júlio Marques e Cintra & Laura Castro Caldas, Lda.

Gonçalo de Carvalho Amaro

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Google apps