"Miraculous” is how the Louvre Museum describes the rediscovery in 1998 of a Nicolas Poussin painting that had been lost for two centuries and is now in their holdings. The piece is titled “Saint Francesca of Rome Announcing the End of the Plague in Rome,” and it honors St. Francesca for her role in vanquishing a plague that attacked Italy during the 17th century.
Born in Rome in 1384 into a wealthy family, Francesca was a wife, mother, and mystic who founded the Olivetan Oblates of Mary, a confraternity of women dedicated to balancing devotion to God with duties to family and society. During a time of famine, plague and war, she defied the expectations of her noble status by giving all she could to the poor and destitute of Rome. She regularly visited prisons, worked in hospitals and opened the doors of her home to people in the most desperate circumstances.
St. Francesca of Rome, as she came to be known, was associated with miraculous occurrences in her lifetime, and after her death, she was called the “Advocate of Rome” for her intercessions on behalf of the people. She was canonized in 1608 by Pope Paul V, and in the canonization proceedings, she was credited with more than 60 healings.
A half century after her canonization, another outbreak of plague was spreading through Italy. Francesca’s legend had only grown in the time that had passed since her death, and the terrified people implored her intercession. By 1657, the plague had subsided, and Cardinal Rospigliosi, who would become Pope Clement IX ten years later, commissioned Poussin to honor Rome’s protector for again answering their cries for help.
The painting depicts Francesca, floating in a vision before a woman who represents the people of Rome kneeling in prayer. In each hand, Francesca holds arrows broken off at the tips to symbolize destruction of the plague. A figure personifying the plague flees in the background while carrying off two final victims, and an archangel at Francesca’s side, wielding shield and sword, lunges at the plague with righteous fury.
In the background, beneath Francesca and seemingly guarded by the archangel, a woman lays sprawled on the ground, her head buried in her arms. Scholars have deemed this pose to be a reference to Stefano Maderno’s sculpture of the incorrupt body of St. Cecilia. By identifying the plague’s victims with St. Cecilia, Poussin reminds the viewer that death will not have the final say. In the same way that life after death was implied by the discovery of Cecilia’s incorrupt body, her presence in this painting signals that what awaits the fallen is the promise of the Resurrection.
Poussin’s painting was passed down in the Rospigliosi family after Clement IX’s death. Two separate engravings of the image were created before the piece disappeared around the end of the 18th century. Writing for the Louvre, Kazerouni Guillaume states, “It was often referred to thereafter but was known only from the two engravings. After its miraculous reappearance on the Parisian art market in 1998, its whereabouts over the last two centuries gradually became known.”
The provenance of the painting reveals that it was sold in 1798, after the Treaty of Tolentino left the Rospigliosi descendants in financial distress. It found its way into the collection of a secretary to the French Academy in Rome named Alexis Le Go, who brought the piece to Southern France in 1873. Guillaume writes, “His heirs kept the painting, unaware of its history, and it was handed down within the family, who saw it as little more than a dusty old painting until an art specialist recognized it from the engravings. It was then acquired by the Louvre, where it is a valuable addition to the collection of the artist’s mature works, which are underrepresented in the museum.”
The painting’s rediscovery in our time seems particularly fortuitous given the crisis we find ourselves facing today, because it reveals a saint who may be the perfect intercessor for this moment. Francesca and her husband lost two of their three children to the plague, and she almost died from the plague herself. It was a time when less was known about how to stop the spread of disease, and one might wonder what role her care for the sick played in her family’s exposure. For her, the decision was what to do about the suffering of others, and she chose to act with charity.
Today, charity means taking all the precautions our current knowledge of science demands to prevent the spread of this disease to the most vulnerable. Many will face the same choice Francesca faced—whether to become so concerned with self-preservation that we turn our backs on suffering, or whether to decide to reach out, to serve. Those on the front lines of the battle against this pandemic take enormous personal risks by stepping into the field to act with charity. We should commend these heroes throughout the world to the intercession of St. Francesca.
Poussin’s painting reminds us that a pandemic once swept through Italy, and when it reached Rome, St. Francesca stopped it in its tracks. Now a pandemic is sweeping throughout the world, Italy has been hard hit, and the crisis has reached Rome. And just as Italy became an epicenter for the world outbreak, New York has now become such an epicenter. And as Rome is also the epicenter for worldwide Catholicism, and New York a vital center in our world, let us call upon this connection. Let us pray for Francesca to honor her historic advocacy of the City of Rome and to extend her protective mantle to the people of New York and the people of the world.
St. Francesca of Rome, pray for us!