Memorial of St Rosalia

September 4th, 2014

Anton Van Dyck (Anversa 1599 – London 1641), Saint  Rosalia, 1624-25,
oil on canvas,  cm 106x81, Madrid, Prado Museum


Along with Lucy and Agatha, Rosalia is widely venerated in Sicily (Italy). She is not a martyr of the early centuries like the other two, but a holy hermit who lived in the twelfth century and patron saint of the city of Palermo, credited with freeing the city from a plague. For each person of Palermo, on the island or emigrated all over the world, Rosalia is simply and affectionately called "Santuzza".

Born around 1128, she was the daughter of the Duke Sinibaldo, feudatory not far from Agrigento, and Mary Guiscarda, cousin of the Norman King Roger II. When she was young she was called to the Norman Palace, to the court of Queen Margaret, wife of William I of Sicily (1154-1166). Her beauty attracted the admiration of noble knights; the most assiduous suitor, according to popular tradition, it is said to be Baudouin, the future king of Jerusalem.

But Rosalia refused every offer of marriage and, following the example of the anchorites, she retired to a cave on the paternal fief Quisquina, near a convent of Basilian monks.

From there, the young hermit, after an undefined period of penance, moved to a cave on Monte Pellegrino, Palermo, a beautiful promontory, next to an existing Byzantine church not far from a convent of Benedictine monks where she lived in a cell built over a well which still exists. Her hermit's life was spent in prayer and contemplation, solitude and mortification. Many people from Palermo climbed the mountain attracted by the fame of her holiness. She died, according to tradition, on September 4th, 1160.

This picture by the great Flemish painter shows us with a few strokes the characteristics of the holy cave where she had taken refuge, her poverty witnessed by the dark and rough cloth, the beauty still evident in the red hair and the face though marked by penance, her hand on the skull to remember the transience of life, the closeness to God witnessed by the angel that crowns her with roses.

An interesting item to consider is that Van Dyck was in Palermo between April and September of 1624, just when the saint's relics were found on Mount Pellegrino (July 15). For this reason, he left us at least 4 paintings depicting the saint and he was commissioned on the spot at that time. He was also a witness to the plague that broke out in August of the same year and then disappeared the next year following a procession with the relics of St. Rosalia which were carried solemnly on June 9th 1625.