The Black Death and Religious Impact


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When facing death, medieval society in 1348 looked to the Church, just as they did to medics, for rituals of comfort. Fearing contagion, burials became hasty affairs. By law, no one other than immediate family could accompany the body to the cemetery and many city governments forbid the ringing of parish church bells, believing it would discourage the sick and dying multitudes.

In past centuries, death was embraced as a sister and friend, a welcome bridge to eternal rest. A priest would administer the Sacrament of Extreme unction to help prepare the traveler for his journey. Those left behind held ornate funeral procession and saw their loved ones buried in consecrated ground.

Some eyewitnesses were disillusioned with the clergy. “Priests and friars went to see the rich in great multitudes and were paid such high prices that they all got rich.” Reports the Florentine Chronicler. Some priests even refused to set foot inside the houses of the sick, neglecting the cries of their flock. However, several accounts show that many friars, priests and nuns gave their lives in faithful ecclesiastical service. Some perished administering the sacrament in the same room as their patients.

Overall, the 1348 plague revealed the Church’s human side and left such a traumatic impression on minds of the people that it influenced Martin Luther’s Reformation movement in the 1500’s.

Now, death was a ravishing monster, an enemy to be feared. How the disease tortured and humiliated the human body was no secret. How to escape the plague remained unknown.


Healing was an alluring promise of many saints venerated during the plague epidemics. As a result, saints became part of the iconography of the plague.

St. Sebastian, who died around 300 AD, became a Roman soldier under Emperor Diecletian, who was unaware of Sebastian’s beliefs. Sebastian was known for spreading the Gospel message throughout Rome and helping keep his fellow soldiers strong in the Christian faith. Discovering Sebastian was a Christian, the Emperor had him tied, pierced with arrows, and left for dead.

As legend holds, a widow nursed Sebastian back to health. He lived only long enough to confront Emperor Diecletian about his cruelty to Christians. Because of his outspoken act, the ruler had him beaten to death. Sebastian began to be venerated around 1400 in Milan, and he is considered patron saint of archers, athletes, soldiers, as well as a protector from the plague. The flying arrows have since become a symbol of the plague. Sebastian’s wounds resemble plague boils.


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Saint Rocco (Rouque in Spanish) gained his fame during a pilgrimage to Rome in the 1300’s while plague ravaged Italy. Devoting himself to caring for the plague victims, he became ill himself at Piacenza but he recovered and was said to have performed miraculous healings. A hundred years after his death, Rocco was reported to have interceded in miracles. He is usually pictured pointing to a plague boil on his inner thigh and often with a dog, a symbol of fidelity.  

 Saint Lorenzo was a deacon of a church in Rome who was killed for his faith in no ordinary manner. He was burned alive in a gridiron for his faith. Like with saint Bartolomeo, plague victims could identify with the pain Saint Lorenzo experienced.  

 In 1427, the legend of Saint Bartolomeo gained popularity. An apostle who was flogged and crucified, he, like Lorenzo, experienced dreadful suffering and was called upon to alleviate the plague. Interestingly, many scholars associate with a disturbing detail in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel: the figure that holds his own skin is thought to be a reference to Bartolomeo and to the plague, since it was most manifested in buboes on the skin.



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