Saint Sebastian, guard and defend us, morning and evening, every minute of every hour, and diminish the strength of that vile illness which is threatening us. We put our trust in God, in our Lady, and in you, holy martyr.
Architecture responds to human needs and aspirations. Throughout history, times of plague and catastrophe have called for serious responses in the form of churches and sacred art.
One spectacular example is the Pestsäule, a 70-foot-tall plague column in Vienna. Its figures, clouds, and angels lead up to the Trinity. It is one of many such Trinity columns erected in the Austro-Hungarian empire after pestilence. Another example from Vienna: During the plague of 1713, emperor Charles VI vowed to build a church to his patron saint. One of the first great historians of architecture, Fischer von Erlach, designed a great oval church that the emperor dedicated to the plague saint, St. Charles Borromeo.
In Milan, before the plague of 1576 ended, the saintly archbishop Charles Borromeo himself began construction on a votive church (a church built in thanksgiving) in honor of the Roman soldier Sebastian, patron saint of plague victims. San Sebastiano is a cylindrical temple with two domes articulated by the Doric order, appropriate for a soldier saint and male martyr.
Designed by Borromeo’s favorite architect, Pellegrino Tibaldi, this church gives lie to the belief that Borromeo considered centralized forms to be pagan and inappropriate for Christian churches. Attached to the rotunda is a sanctuary where a statue of the Redeemer surmounts the altar. The church's side altars to St. Sebastian and the Pieta are particularly poignant.
Charles Borromeo spent his fortune and his short life feeding and serving the residents of Milan during the plague, which killed over 25,000 people. His personal sacrifice for the people’s physical and eternal needs explains the large number of altarpieces, side chapels, and churches dedicated to San Carlo throughout Italy. During the plague, he required his priests to visit the faithful and give them the eucharist. He had altars erected outside the churches so that people could attend Mass from their homes. He led three major processions in the manner of St. Gregory the Great, who had had the icon of Our Lady, Salus Populi Romani, carried through the streets of Rome in 590.
One of Borromeo’s interests was the proper care of church art and architecture. He required that tabernacles be placed on altars, he created confessionals to protect the faithful, and wrote one of the first handbooks on church architecture, Instructiones Fabricae et Supellectillis Ecclesiasticae, published in 1564.
Venice, due to its role as merchant to the world, has seen more plagues than other great cities. During the Renaissance and Baroque periods, the city government built five plague churches as thank offerings to three saints, the Redeemer, and the Madonna.
The Church of San Rocco was built around the body of Saint Rocco, who healed the sick during his life and ended the plague of 1414 after his death. The scuola (or confraternity building) next door was founded to serve the poor and those stricken with plague. It was Tintoretto’s masterpiece. No expense was spared.
Venice also built her own San Sebastiano, begun in 1468, dedicated to the saint who survived the piercing of plague-like arrows. Paolo Veronese painted the rich iconographical scheme of the saint’s life, along with scenes of martyrdoms, a scene of the Assumption, and scenes from Scripture.
After the plague of 1575, the senate hired Andrea Palladio to design one of the most prominent churches of Venice. At Il Redentore (the Redeemer), the temple-like façade veils a complex interior with six side chapels and a high altar that illustrate the life of the redeemer.
The crown of the basin of San Marco and the gateway to the grand canal is Santa Maria della Salute (St. Mary of Good Health), begun after the plague of 1630 by Baldassare Longhena. Singularly octagonal for Venice, it is a tour de force of sculpture, vaulting, and geometry. Along with side chapels celebrating the life of Our Lady, the high altar has a monumental statuary group of the Queen of Heaven expelling the plague above an icon of Madonna mediatrix. On their feast days, both this church and Il Redentore are visited by processions across bridges of boats.
Santa Maria della Salute
Like our forebears, we pray for an end to pestilence, healing for the sick, and heaven for the dead. We offer votive gifts to the Trinity. We ask the saints to intercede, and the Redemptoris Mater to deliver us. People pray for deliverance. Heroic priests visit the sick and dying. Heroic medical personnel serve them. It is a time for the works of mercy. It is also a time for cornerstones. Ora pro nobis peccatoribus.
Duncan G. Stroik is an American architect and professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture.