NEW YORK • He is dapper, beaming with the confidence of youth; he does not have the temperament for sheltering in place.
It is springtime, the year is 1624 and the 25-year-old Anthony van Dyck is sailing south to Sicily, where he has been invited to paint the island's Spanish viceroy.
Van Dyck is establishing his international career as a portraitist to the rich and famous and he has already had some success in Genoa, London and his home town, Antwerp. Now, in Palermo, he feels on the cusp of a breakthrough.
He gets the portrait done that spring, but then: disaster.
On May 7, 1624, Palermo reports the first cases of a plague that will soon kill more than 10,000, about 10 per cent of the city's population.
On June 25, the viceroy whom van Dyck painted declares a state of emergency. Five weeks later, he is dead.
Quarantined in a foreign city, the young Fleming watches in horror as the port closes, the city gates slam shut, the hospital overflows and the afflicted groan in the street.
As the emergency wears on, a gang of Franciscans starts digging up the earth on a hill facing the harbour. In a cave, they unearth a pile of bones, which, the archbishop's commission determines, belongs to Saint Rosalia, a noblewoman of centuries past.
Rosalia's relics are paraded through the city as the epidemic abates and the grateful citizens worship her as the santuzza, the "little saint", who saved the city.
Rosalia is proclaimed, and remains today, the patron saint of Palermo. Van Dyck – meeting the new demand, and not a little grateful himself – takes a half-finished self-portrait, slathers it with primer and paints the new protectress, floating gloriously over the illness-ravaged port town.
Saint Rosalie Interceding For The Plague-Stricken Of Palermo, painted almost 400 years ago and now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is one of five surviving pictures of Rosalia made during van Dyck's days in quarantine.
It was, in fact, one of the Met's very first acquisitions, bought a year after the museum's founding in 1870. You ought to have seen van Dyck's plague picture in the first gallery of the exhibition Making The Met: 1870-2020, the centrepiece of the museum's 150th birthday celebrations, which was scheduled to open yesterday.
Now, of course, Rosalia is quarantined herself as the coronavirus pandemic intensifies. The Met does not expect to reopen before July.
Rosalia, though, is already in her assigned spot for Making The Met, which had been nearly installed before work halted in the middle of this month.
She seems, at first glance, to be ascending to heaven with the help of nearly a dozen cherubim and a shaft of light beams onto her ruddy face through dark clouds at the top of the painting.
It is a deceptive painting. Look fast and you might easily confuse this for an Assumption Of The Virgin, and indeed, the saint was incorrectly identified when the Met bought the picture during its first year in business.
Making The Met also includes an 1881 painting of the museum's first location in 14th Street, with the mislabelled Rosalia clearly visible.
The confusion was understandable outside Sicily. Unlike Peter with his keys or Catherine with her wheel, this little-known saint did not have a set of standard attributes until the plague struck.
Our Flemish upstart therefore had to invent an iconography for the woman who stopped the epidemic.
Van Dyck decided to picture Rosalia as a young woman with long, blond and kinky hair, cheeks blushing, eyes wide with ecstasy.
Beneath her, energetically sketched in a washy palette of ochreRead More – Source