Editorial: Non Timebis a Sagitta Volante in Die

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. Amen.

Prayers for deliverance are made. Heroic priests visit the sick and dying, and heroic medical personnel serve them. It is a time for the works of mercy. It is also a time for cornerstones.

Architecture responds to human needs and aspirations. Times of plague and catastrophe call for serious responses and now is such a time. A spectacular example is the Pestsäule, a seventy-foot-tall plague column in Vienna, with figures, clouds, and angels leading up to the Trinity. It is one of many such Trinity columns erected in the Austro-Hungarian empire after pestilence.

On a grander note, 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 with references to the history of architecture which the emperor dedicated to the plague saint, Saint Charles Borromeo.

Saint Charles Borromeo

In Milan, before the plague of 1576 lifted, the saintly archbishop Charles Borromeo began construction on a votive church (a church built in thanksgiving) in honor of the Roman soldier, Sebastian, patron saint of plague victims. He 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 Saint Gregory the Great, who had the icon of Our Lady, Salus Populi Romani, carried through the streets of Rome in 590.

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 as pagan and inappropriate for Christian churches. Attached to the rotunda is a sanctuary where a statue of the Redeemer surmounts the altar. Side altars to Saint Sebastian and the Pietà are particularly poignant.

One of the Borromeo’s favorite interests was the proper care of church art and architecture. Among his major initiatives were the requirement that tabernacles be placed on altars, the creation of confessionals to protect the faithful, and one of the first handbooks on church architecture, Instructiones Fabricae et Supellectillis Ecclesiasticae, published in 1564.

The Churches in Venice

Venice, due to its role as merchant to the world, has had more instances of the plague 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.

At San Rocco, his confraternity built a church around the body of the saint 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, and its interior decoration is Tintoretto’s masterpiece. No expense was spared.

Venice built her own San Sebastiano, begun in 1468, dedicated to the saint who survived the piercing of plague-like arrows. The rich iconographical scheme of his life, along with scenes from scripture, martyrdoms, and the Madonna at the main altar were painted by Paolo Veronese.

Madonna in Glory with Saint Sebastian and other saints, Veronese. Photo: Richard Bonaccorso

Madonna in Glory with Saint Sebastian and other saints, Veronese. Photo: Richard Bonaccorso

After the plague of 1575, the Senate hired Andrea Palladio to design one of the most visible churches of Venice. At Il Redentore (the Redeemer), the temple-like façade veils a complex interior with six side chapels and high altar that illustrate the life of the Redeemer in counterclockwise fashion.

The crown of the basin of San Marco and the gateway to the grand canal is Santa Maria della Salute (Saint 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 feastdays, both this church and Il Redentore are visited by processions across bridges of boats.

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. We make sacrifices and vows, we commission artwork and architecture, and we visit them in thanksgiving for the end of the sickness. Ora pro nobis peccatoribus.

Duncan G. Stroik is the editor of Sacred Architecture Journal.