In times of struggle and uncertainty, art has served as a mechanism for healing and coping with the difficulties of everyday life. Art has offered its viewers and makers opportunities to transcend the daily realities and take creative and positive steps toward overcoming physical, mental, and emotional struggles. This is not some recent insight of our modern therapeutic age: this is evident throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance periods and it continues to be so during our current moment and the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. Art and the creative process are healing. 

Title page of Vita Sancti Rochi (Life of St. Roch) by Francesco Diedo. Mainz, Peter von Friedberg, ca. 1494–1495. (Image credit: National Library of Medicine)

When the Black Death began spreading across Europe, Eurasia, and North Africa during the middle of the fourteenth century, St. Roch emerged as one of the key protectors of the sick. Venerated initially in northern Italy and then in other regions of the premodern world, St. Roch gained a prominent visual presence for the suffering faithful. As a fourteenth-century plague saint, he was often depicted in the guise of a Christian pilgrim with the wounds of his martyrdom visible, and drawing particular attention to the plague bubo on his thigh. This is the case in the frontispiece of the Vita Sancti Rochi (Life of St. Roch) written by Francesco Diedo and first published in 1478, in the midst of the bubonic plague in Italy (1477–1479). Here, an angel tends to St. Roch’s wound while a dog brings him sustenance, in accordance with the details of the saint’s Vita.

St. Sebastian, ca. 1435–1491, engraving by Martin Schongauer (Image credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art)

This particular visual vocabulary reminded the faithful of Christ’s sacrifice and the struggles of the plague, but also promised eventual peace, healing, and salvation. St. Roch served both as a model Christian martyr and as an intercessory saint who could petition to the divine for assistance on behalf of those afflicted.

Like St. Roch, St. Sebastian (ca. 256–288) became a protector of plague victims from the late Middle Ages onward. As a third-century Christian saint and martyr, St. Sebastian miraculously survived being tied to a tree and shot with arrows. He died only later when he was clubbed to death upon confronting his attackers for terrorizing Christians. Yet his arrow wounds and their subsequent healing left the most prominent mark in the popular imagination of the late Middle Ages. The arrow wounds, visually akin to the buboes of the plague, served as a metaphor for recovery and healing through faith in times of struggle.     

Madonna and Child with Saints Roch and Sebastian, early 16th century, drawing by Michele da Verona. (Image credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The two saints—Roch and Sebastian—also appeared side by side perhaps to augment their spiritual power in times of need. This early sixteenth-century drawing composed of three separate fragments shows St. Roch and St. Sebastian kneeling to either side of an enthroned Virgin Mary with the Christ Child in her lap. Likely created for a Veronese patron around the time when the city experienced the consequences of another plague in 1510–1511, the image reminds the viewer of possible healing and calls on the intercession and protection of these two plague saints on behalf of the patron. 

Representations of plague saints became popular usually in the aftermath of outbreaks, but also as a means to anticipate protection in the event of future afflictions. About two years after the plague outbreak of 1485, the Italian Renaissance artist Giovanni Bellini (ca. 1430–1516) painted the San Giobbe Altarpiece for the church of San Giobbe in Venice (now in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice). In the painting, St. Jobe (the church’s patron saint) and St. Sebastian appear prominently in the foreground, wearing only  loincloths, and extending their petitions to the Virgin Mary and Christ Child enthroned at the center of the composition. Additional figures accompany these two prominent saints, including St. Francis and St. John the Baptist on the left, and St. Dominic and St. Louis of Toulouse on the right. 

St. Francis displays his stigmata to the faithful to incite contemplation of his suffering and that of Christ, while extending his right arm as if inviting them into the scene. The fictive architectural setting of the altarpiece further blurs the distinction between the earthly setting and that of the divine. For example, the columns with their foliate capitals distinctly emulate those in the church. The image creates a chapel-like extension of the actual space of the church, enabling a more intimate interaction with the heavenly figures within the image. The group of angels holding musical instruments in the foreground, below the feet of the Virgin and Child, further connect the imagined world of the painting with that of the church proper. The viewers would have been encouraged to draw mental connections between the church music that would have permeated their actual surroundings with the imagined divinely inspired sounds within the painting, transcending for a moment their earthly existence.    

Such representations resulted from and reflected contemporary struggles and anxieties, yet they also identified ways to transcend them. The plague saints in particular reminded the faithful that disease and misfortune can be overcome physically and spiritually. Their respective triumphs served as models, offering hope and healing to the sick. Moreover, these saintly figures, through their representations, served an intercessory role, petitioning to the divine for the healing, protection, and salvation of the faithful.   

During the late medieval and Renaissance periods, art certainly had a healing power. And perhaps the same can be said of our times and the COVID-19 pandemic that has been ravaging the globe for more than a year now. In our contemporary struggles, art and the creative process remain quite powerful; they provide a coping mechanism of sorts that allows us to transcend for a moment into a creative sphere of appreciation, inspiration, and healing. 

Collage of “museum challenge” examples.

In this regard, one of most delightful examples of how people worldwide have engaged with art during the pandemic as a way to manage the isolation and daily uncertainties is the so-called museum challenge. Initiated by the Getty Museum as a social media experiment (#gettychallenge), this project prompted  people to recreate in their homes famous artworks and share their creations with the world. 

Thousands of people have engaged this challenge to date, and the results of their creative efforts have been exhilarating! They display a deep engagement with art and a high level of creativity. But perhaps most of all, the exercise demonstrates the power of art and the creative process to help us navigate the confinement and social isolation brought on by the pandemic. Art has once again proved its ability to heal and connect us with the past and to one another. 

Alice Isabella Sullivan, Assistant Professor of Medieval Art and Architecture at Tufts University, is an award-winning author and co-founder of North of Byzantium.