This painting, by the French artist Jules Elie Delaunay (c. 1828-1891), was inspired by a particular tale from the Golden Legend, a large collection of stories about Christian martyrs and saints that was compiled by Jacobus de Voragine (c. 13th century). As the title of the artwork explains, the scene depicts a plague in Rome. Although Jules Elie Delaunay did not explicitly state exactly which plague from the text he was re-creating, context clues and educated guessing can narrow down the options. The likeliest bet is that the scene was inspired by the account of St. Sebastian, found in volume 2, chapter 32, of the Golden Legend. St. Sebastian’s life was said to have been set in the time of Emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305) and Emperor Maximian (r. 286-305), under whose reigns St. Sebastian was reportedly executed during the persecutions against Christians. The martyred saint came to be known as a protector against pestilence, and, digressing on this aspect of Sebastian’s reputation, the Golden Legend fast-forwarded centuries into the future, when St. Sebastian’s relics were said to have played a role in ending a plague that occurred around 680 or 681, during the reign of King Cunincpert of the Lombards (r. 671-688). On this later medieval plague, the Lombard historian Paul the Deacon (c. 720-799) wrote:
“[T]here followed a very severe pestilence for three months, that is, in July, August and September, and so great was the multitude of those dying that even parents and children and brothers with their sisters were placed on biers two by two and conducted to their tombs at the city of Rome. And in like manner too this pestilence also depopulated Ticinum [aka Pavia]…Then it was said by a certain man by revelation that the pestilence itself would not cease before an altar of St. Sebastian the martyr was placed in the church of the blessed Peter which is called ‘Ad Vincula.’ And it was done, and after the remains of St. Sebastian the martyr had been carried from the city of Rome, presently the altar was set up in the aforesaid church and the pestilence itself ceased” (Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, 6.5).
This event described by Paul the Deacon (c. 720-799) was later included in the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine (c. 13th century), who elaborated the story with added suggestions that angels and demons supposedly were involved in overseeing the plague. In Jacobus de Voragine’s book, the name of the Lombard capital city of Ticinum was changed to its later designation of Pavia, and King Cunincpert’s name also somehow bizarrely changed to King Gumbert. Despite these name changes and the scary imagery of angels and demons, the basic outline of the story largely remained the same in the later account. The Golden Legend (translated here with unfortunate ye olde English) claimed:
“[I]n the time of King Gumbert all Italy was smitten with so great a pestilence that unnethe they that were alive might bury the dead, and this pestilence was most at Rome and Pavia. Then the good angel was seen visibly of many, and an evil angel following bearing a staff whom he bade smite and slay, and as many strokes as he smote an house, so many dead persons were borne out of it. Then at last it was shewed to one by God’s grace that this pestilence should not cease till that they had made an altar to St. Sebastian at Pavia…” (Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, 2.32).
It is this scene that seems to have inspired Jules Elie Delaunay’s painting. Following the Golden Legend’s description, the artwork shows an angel, together with what may be a demon, knocking on a door in Rome, tapping out the number of people who would die in the household. In another similarity to the Golden Legend, Jules Elie Delaunay seemed to be more interested in representing the ancient time that St. Sebastian lived in, instead of depicting Rome in the medieval 7th-century setting in which the plague actually occurred. Therefore, instead of medieval dress, many of the figures on the canvas are clothed in ancient Roman togas.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon, translated by William Dudley Foulke (c. 1904). University of Pennsylvania Press, 1907, 1974, 2003.
- The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine, translated by William Caxton (c. 1422-1491), and reprinted unabridged and in seven volumes by SSEL (2022).