When a 25-year-old Anthony van Dyck visited Palermo during his transformative sojourn in Italy (1621-27), he got more than he had bargained for. As had been his habit in places such as Genoa, the socially savvy painter won contracts for portraits and private devotional pictures from the local nobility. But this was no ordinary visit. Mere weeks after his arrival to paint the Spanish viceroy Emanuele Filiberto (1588-1624) and members of Palermo's prosperous Genoese community, the city's most disastrous plague struck, in May 1624, ultimately claiming 10,000 lives--including that of Filiberto. (1)
Terrifying as it was for the artist, Van Dyck's involuntary quarantine was a boon for the history of art. For it was during that time that he took the iconography of a 12th-century anchorite and transformed her not only into Palermo's main patron saint, but also one of Catholicism's most popular images of victory over plague. (2) Van Dyck's Sicilian adventure is vividly brought to life in a splendid new exhibition and catalogue curated by Xavier Salomon at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London (until 27 May 2012). (3) For the first time it brings together all five of the Rosalie paintings that Van Dyck is confirmed to have made in Sicily. Its catalogue breathes new life into the subject, as Salomon literally follows in Van Dyck's footsteps, seeking out his garret and old haunts and publishing documentation about the plague and paintings that help refine our knowledge of the artist's time in Sicily. One important discovery is that the plague lasted longer than traditionally supposed--on 6 January 1626, Archbishop Giannetto Doria was still publishing stern warnings about harbouring the diseased--and therefore when Van Dyck escaped the city in September 1625, he managed to do so before the pestilence had ended, which was not an easy task. (4)
As far as Palermo's civic and religious officials were concerned, Van Dyck and Saint Rosalie were a marriage made in heaven. He was an ambitious artist with time on his hands and she was an all-but-forgotten holy rustic whom the city desperately needed to give a facelift. (5) Saint Rosalie's metamorphosis began when a huntsman conveniently discovered her bones two months after the outbreak of disease, and the archbishop, Jesuits and municipal authorities lost no time in pushing through their authentication (in February 1625, her relics were declared genuine and five years later Pope Urban VIII entered her in the Martyrologium Romanum). (6) Van Dyck was not the first person civic leaders approached for the new Rosalie. The minor Sicilian painter and Jesuit favourite Vincenzo La Barbera (c. 1577-1651) was hired by the Senate on 27 July 1624 to paint Saint Rosalie Interceding for Palermo (1624), just in time to debut in a Jesuit-sponsored procession in honour of Rosalie on 4 September, the second they had sponsored since the outbreak (Fig. 2). (7)
Before La Barbera's canvas, Rosalie had been represented only sporadically and in groups, including a stiff 13th-century Italo-Byzantine icon in which she and fellow patron saints Elias and...
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