During the plague epidemic of 1624-26 in Palermo, Santa Rosalia became the city’s patron saint. Her festino, when an elaborately decorated carriage carrying a statue of the saint is paraded through the city, has been celebrated ever since. The Flemish painter Anthony Van Dyck happened to be present in Palermo at the time and produced some of the first paintings of Santa Rosalia, establishing an image of the saint which has endured until today.
In early 1624 at the age of 25, Van Dyck arrived in Sicily with a commission to paint the portrait of the Spanish viceroy, Emanuele Filiberto. In this period Sicily was a Spanish colony, cut off from mainland Italy. Soon after his arrival Van Dyck completed the portrait, in which the viceroy appeared as the ideal image of an aristocratic and military figure in black and gold armour. Shortly afterwards Palermo was hit by an epidemic of the plague which was to last for two years and kill a quarter of the city’s population of 130,000. The viceroy was among the early victims. Crisis measures were introduced by the senate, preventing movement in and out of Palermo. Lazzaretti (emergency hospitals) were set up to hold the sick and dying.
On 15th July 1624, bones were found in a cave on Monte Pellegrino, just outside Palermo, which were confirmed by the church to be those of Santa Rosalia. Rosalia lived in the times of the Norman kings and came from a noble family. At an early age she left her family to live as a religious hermit, first near Agrigento and then on Monte Pellegrino. She died in 1170 and was subsequently canonised, becoming one of several favoured saints in Palermo. Her bones were recovered from the cave, taken to the city, and used as relics to raise the morale of the people in combating the plague. As the impact of the plague faded, this was due, according to the archbishop, to the intercession of the saint. Santa Rosalia became the hugely popular patron saint of Palermo, known affectionately as the Santuzza, or little saint.
In her recognition, a number of works were ordered by the senate. Chapels were built both in Palermo’s cathedral and in the cave on Monte Pellegrino. A painting was commissioned from Vincenzo La Barbera which set the tone for future images of the saint. In it Rosalia is shown interceding with the Holy Trinity and the Virgin Mary for the city of Palermo, as she gestures towards the lazzaretto. Behind her can be seen the port of Palermo, and in the background, Monte Pellegrino.
While still in Palermo, Van Dyck received private commissions for paintings of Rosalia. Building upon the image created by La Barbera, he produced what became the accepted iconography of the saint. Rosalia appears with long fair hair, dressed in a brown monastic robe. She is placed near her cave on Monte Pellegrino, interceding for her city, which is spread out below. She is accompanied by a garland of roses, signifying her name, some lilies, a skull and a book. In one painting (shown above) she appears in close-up without the city background. Five of these paintings have survived, to be found in London, New York and Madrid.
Van Dyck also painted an altarpiece, The Madonna of the Rosary, considered to be among his best, for the oratory of San Domenico in Palermo. In it the Virgin and Child appear in the clouds, surrounded by angels, while below are depicted three Domenican saints, Dominic, Vincent and Catherine of Siena. The five female saints of Palermo are also shown, Rosalia, Cristina, Agata, Ninfa and Oliva. Mary offers a rosary to St Dominic who holds out his hand to accept it.
Once the effects of the plague had receded, Van Dyck returned to Genoa, probably in the autumn of 1625, with his commission for the painting. He completed it in Genoa from where it was delivered to Palermo in 1628. The oratory, to be found behind the church of San Domenico, was redesigned in the early 1700s to contain some striking life-sized female figures in stucco, representing the Virtues, by Giacomo Serpotta. There are also important paintings by local artists such as Pietro Novelli. But Van Dyck’s altarpiece remains the dominant work which can be seen today in its original place in the oratory.