Five centuries or more ago in Christians would be fervently praying to San Rocco, the patron saint of plague. He is usually painted as a scantily dressed pilgrim with a staff and sores more or less prominently painted over his body, and he is particularly popular in Venice.
One of my favourite places in Venice is the fraternity of San Rocco. I remember it as being tucked away off the main squares and streets, a sign of fear and respect. Venice’s prosperity depended on trade from around the Mediterranean basin carrying merchandise and diseases. This was a fact of mercantile life, but plagues were different. They were feared. So San Rocco was a saint who attracted much reverence and donations. The spacious two-storied building was decorated by the maverick pupil of the great Titian, Tintoretto, who it is thought might have influenced El Greco before he left Venice for Spain.
It is so easy and exciting to wander off the beaten track in Venice, to get lost in the narrow alleys to come up against a wall and turn abruptly into another street or a tiny square, only occasionally with a tree. The square outside the Scuola is usually deserted. Its ground floor is dark, the only daylight coming from the entrance door and windows opening on to it. The paintings, even in the farthest corners, glow, the luminescent sky blues pale into a creamy yellow tinged with pink as they draw in the daylight at the far end of the low room-. The depiction of the Flight into Egypt is lodged in my visual memory. Inside in the far-left corner, the Virgen rides a donkey carrying the Christ child, with Saint Joseph walking beside her into an uncertain future. There seems to be a river in the background, where a woman washes clothes outside a hovel in the perpetual labour of a mundane existence.
Wander up to the storey above. There light streams in illuminating a Nativity in what looks like a roofless stable. The Virgin and Saint Joseph have carried the Christ child to the upper floor of the Scuola. In what looks like a hayloft above the animals and extras filling out the story, the Holy Family has arrived from the ground floor and are settling in. Above you on the ceiling is the feeding of the multitude by Jesus, a message of hope in times of plague. It is like another square covered and surrounded by miraculous events happening to save people, rich and poor alike. Even the plague-stricken Venetians will be succoured in their time of need. Their saint will not forget them. It is a scene of great beauty and of hope. What were they discussing? What were they planning while their city was in lock-down like ours?