St. Rosalia (1130–1166), also called La Santuzza or “The Little Saint,” and in Sicilian as “Rusulia,” is the patron saint of Palermo in Italy, Camargo in Chihuahua, Mexico, and three towns in Venezuela: El Hatillo, Zuata, and Anzoátegui.
She is especially important internationally as a saint invoked in times of plague. Even now, in 2020, she is being invoked by the citizens of Palermo to protect the city from COVID-19.
St Rosalia often is depicted as a young woman, sometimes holding a cross, book or skull, and also a spray of lilies. Some images show her holding a chisel and hammer with which she carved her dedication (see below). She is often pictured wearing a crown of roses, attended by winged angels, and often with a view through a cave opening of Palermo Harbour.
Rosalia was born of a Norman noble family that claimed descent from Charlemagne. Devoutly religious, she retired to live as a hermit in a cave on Mount Pellegrino, where she died alone in 1166. Tradition says that she was led to the cave by two angels. On the cave wall she wrote “I, Rosalia, daughter of Sinibald, Lord of Roses, and Quisquina, have taken the resolution to live in this cave for the love of my Lord, Jesus Christ.”
In 1624, a plague beset Palermo. During this hardship, St. Rosalia appeared first to a sick woman, then to a hunter, to whom she indicated where her remains were to be found. She ordered him to bring her bones to Palermo and have them carried in procession through the city.
The hunter climbed the mountain and found her bones in the cave as she had described to him. He did what she had asked in the apparition. After her remains were carried around the city three times, the plague ceased. After this, St. Rosalia was venerated as the patron saint of Palermo, and a sanctuary was built in the cave where her remains were discovered.
The feast of St. Rosalia is Sept. 4.
In Palermo, the Festino di Santa Rosalia is celebrated each year on July 14, and continues into the next day. It is a major social and religious event in the city.
On Sept. 4, a tradition of walking barefoot from Palermo up to Mount Pellegrino is observed in honor of St. Rosalia. In Italian-American communities in the United States, the July feast is generally dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel while the September feast, beginning in August, brings large numbers of visitors annually to the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn in New York City.
Depictions in art
St. Rosalia was an important subject in Italian Renaissance and Baroque painting, particularly in sacre conversazioni (group pictures of saints flanking the Virgin Mary) by artists such as Riccardo Quartararo, Mario di Laurito, Vincenzo La Barbara, and possibly Antonello da Messina.
But it was Flemish master Anthony Van Dyck (1599–1637), who was caught in Palermo during the 1624 plague, who produced the most paintings of her. His depictions – a young woman with flowing blonde hair, wearing a Franciscan cowl and reaching down toward the city of Palermo in its peril – became the standard iconography of the saint from that time onward.
During the quarantine from 1624-to 1625, Anthony van Dyck was trapped in the city where he produced five paintings of the saint, now in Madrid, Houston, London, New York and Palermo itself. In 1629 he also produced St. Rosalia Interceding for the City of Palermo and Coronation of St. Rosalia to assist Jesuit efforts to spread her cult beyond Sicily.
In March 2020, The New York Times published an article about the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s painting of St. Rosalia by Van Dyck in the context of Covid-19.
Feast of St. Rosalia in Palermo
St. Rosalia, also called “La Santuzza” in Sicily, is the patron saint of Palermo. Here is the legend of Santa Rosalia as it is told in Palermo:
No other woman is so beloved as Palermo’s own St. Rosalia. In Palermo, you’ll see her image everywhere you look, not only in churches, but everywhere.
Our St. Rosalia is beautiful in all her different representations.
Today, she rests in the Monte Pellegrino Hermitage. Her bones are kept in the reliquary of the Cathedral. And you can find the lovely Van Dyck portrait of St. Rosalia that is on display in the Palazzo Abatellis.
Wherever you find her portrait, you’ll find flowers offered about her image. According to legend, when St. Rosalia performed miracles, bystanders noticed the sweet odor of flowers that emanated from her presence.
In Palermo, everybody knows the legend and all the stories that surround the lovely St. Rosalia.
Our Lady was born in 1126 right here in Palermo, a daughter of the aristocracy. Her father was Count Roger I.
In those days, it was normal for the parents to arrange suitable marriages for their children. But St. Rosalia refused to accept a husband from the many choices offered her. She felt a greater, more important call, so instead of allowing herself to be married, she cloistered herself in a convent.
But soon felt that there was too much gossip and petty jealousy much like it had been at court, so then St. Rosalia installed herself in a little cave. The cave in Pellegrino Mount was the property of her father. St. Rosalia remained in her cave until her early death at only 36 years of age.
Long after she had died, during a 1624 plague, in one of her most famous appearances, she showed herself to a soap maker.
She bade him suggest to the cardinal that her bones be brought to a procession so she could stop the plague.
She became the Sicilian heroine and many visitors insist that The Festino di Santa Rosalia (The Feast of St. Rosalia). is the most beautiful popular feast in all of Europe. Her colorful festivities take place on the evening of July 14 when St. Rosalia’s relics resting in a grand chariot are paraded from the Old Town to the Marina, culminating in a grand spectacle of fireworks.
The most outstanding feature of the procession is the magnificent chariot. Shaped like a vessel, it houses the statue of the Santuzza (Little Saint). Each year a new chariot is constructed for this momentous event. Actually, the chariot is the equivalent of a moving stage. It is about thirty-three feet long and wide. Oxen pull the chariot (although originally, elephants did that job).
Roses, angels, putti (cherubs) and Tritons blend together in gold and baroque colors to decorate the chariot, while people continue to dance around the procession creating their own amazing choreography with lighting effects. Everyone constantly keeps shouting Viva Palermo e Santa Rosalia (Hurrah for Palermo and Santa Rosalia!)
On the following day (July 15), St. Rosalia’s relics are carried all around and finally returned to the Cathedral to be blessed by the Archbishop of Palermo.
As an added bonus, during the festival, the Old Town fills with street food vendors who offer the best dishes on the Sicilian menu.
Viva Palermo e Santa Rosalia!
Stained glass image of Rosalia
Sculpture of Rosalia
St. Rosalia feast in Palermo
St. Rosalia in Cave
St. Rosalia art and symbols
According to Cascini’s 1631” VITA,” Rosalia lived atop a high and nearly inaccessible mountain in a tiny hollow, “hardly big enough for her little body, more like a garment than a cell.” In many images of her, the saint is recumbent in a space where it would be difficult even to sit up, accompanied by the usual accoutrements of the contemplative: a crucifix, a skull, and a book. The flowers and the garland of roses in the images are gifts from the Virgin and Child, who would come and speak with her from time to time.
Another common iconographic type is a portrait of the saint standing with the garland and holding the crucifix and skull. Also common are the prayer beads that the legend says were in her hand when she died.
Some images show the saint walking the 40 miles from her wealthy family’s home to a mountaintop near Bivona, carrying a pilgrim’s staff and accompanied by angels. Later the angels led her from that mountain to the one with the rock hollow. The second mountain, then known as Erectense, towered high above her native Palermo and was at the time covered in dark forest and nearly inaccessible. In some narratives, the angels are more clearly portrayed as guides showing Rosalia the way.
After Rosalia died her tiny cave became a place of pilgrimage and the Erectense came to be known as Monte Pellegrino (“Mount Pilgrim”). Pilgrimages became especially frequent after 1624 and continue to the present day.
St Rosalia Interceding for the Plague by Anthony van Dyck
Crowning of St. Rosalia with Roses by Two Angels by Anthony van Dyck
St. Rosalia Interceding for the City of Palermo