The Christian world is full of churches, chapels, and memorials thanking God for halting plagues and honoring the saints for their intercession. The stories are tremendous, as are the works themselves. It is salutary for us to learn about these plague churches built by our predecessors in the faith.
Speaking of salutary, Santa Maria della Salute in Venice, is usually just called La Salute, which means “health.” The plague of 1631-1632 killed one third of the population of Venice, which makes our current pandemic look comparatively less severe. The plague suddenly ceased on November 21, 1631, the day Doge Contarini and Patriarch Tiepola made a vow to dedicate a church to the Blessed Virgin, Our Lady of Health and Protectress of the Republic of Venice. The architect, Baldassare Longhena, conceived of the church as a crown to honor Mary as Queen. The Venetian Senate decreed the building of the church, and every year on November 21, two bridges of boats are built across the Grand Canal. The Senate of Venice attends Mass along with many Venetians and pilgrims. The vast, octagonal church has two domes and two picturesque bell-towers behind the smaller dome. Built on a platform made of 1,200,000 wooden piles, it is constructed of bricks coated with marble dust. If you have been to Venice you will have seen it located on the Grand Canal, or you may have seen it in famous paintings by Canaletto, J.M.W. Turner or John Singer Sergeant. Its interior holds priceless religious masterpieces by Tintoretto and Titian.
Salute is one of five plague churches in Venice. The stories of the other plague churches are equally fascinating. I will mention only a few details here.
The La Chiesa di San Giobbe (St. Job), built in 1462-1471 near the Jewish ghetto, is named after the Old Testament saint who was so patient in suffering. La Scuola e Chiesa di San Rocco (The School and Church of San Rocco), built in 1485-1550 and decorated by Tintoretto, is one of the five “Guilds of the Charitable Brethren.” This guild’s particular duty was charity toward plague victims. La Chiesa di San Sebastiano (The Church of Saint Sebastian), built in 1506-1518 and decorated by Veronese, contains artwork depicting plague symbolism from the Bible such as the Pool of Bethesda. La Chiesa del Redentatore (The Church of the Redeemer) designed by Palladio and built after the plague of 1575. As with the Salute, a Doge and a Patriarch of the city made a vow to build a church if the plague would cease. It did, so they commissioned the great architect Andrea Palladio to design it on the island of Giaddecca, across the Grand Canal.
Venice was subject to the ravages of the plagues of Europe because it was the center of trade for the Eastern Mediterranean and the caravan routes of Asia. But European cities such as Cologne (whose name refers to perfumed waters thought to ward off the plague!), Munich, Bingen, Oberammergau, Vienna, and other cities have churches, chapels, monuments, memorials, and artworks thanking God for halting plagues and imploring the intercession of the saints.
So let us pray to the saints in Heaven for their intercession in this our time of plague that we might not to fall into the despondency, despair, or confusion. Let us makes vows as the Doges and Patriarchs of Venice did, to to build or beautify our churches, even if on a smaller scale. Like them, let us ask the Blessed Virgin Mary’s intercession, and God, who makes good come out of evil, will surely answer our prayers.
For more information on the plagues of Europe, and the plague churches, see The Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine: Avery, Harold (February 1966). “Plague churches, monuments and memorials”. Proc. R. Soc. Med. 59 (2): 110–116. PMC 1900794. PMID 5906745