A patron saint of false accusations

In my last note on The Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci, I touched on one of the themes in the painting being pilgrimage, and mentioned two major destinations for pilgrims in Leonardo’s time, Rome and Mecca.

The Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci, Uffizi, Florence

Since then I’ve discovered another connection in the painting to add to the theme of pilgrimage.

It’s taken me a few days to try and fathom why Leonardo included this strand, and there is more than one answer as to why he made several references to a particular saint known as St Roch, or St Rocco as he is known in Italy.

Saint Rocco, The Cloisters Collection, Met Museum,

St Rocco was a 14th century saint of noble birth, born in Montpellier, France. By the time he had reached the age of 20, both his parents had died. He then became a Third Order Franciscan and set out as a pilgrim on a journey to Rome. He arrived in Italy during a plague epidemic and spent most of his life travelling through the country preserving people suffering with the pestilence, simply by making the Sign of the Cross over them and on their foreheads.

He contracted the disease himself but was miraculously cured. On his return to Montpellier he was falsely accused of being a spy, arrested by his own uncle and thrown into prison where he spent the remaining five years of his life. In 1485 his body was eventually carried to Venice and is preserved within the high altar of the Church of St Rocco.

St Rocco is a saint invoked against epidemics, and more recently during the worldwide spread of Covid. He is also the patron saint of dogs, pilgrims and, not surprisingly, falsely accused people. It is this latter patronage that Leonardo may have had in mind for referencing St Rocco in his painting, which he produced shortly after he was anonymously accused of sodomy in 1476 and called before the Florentine court of justice for his perceived crime. 

So in this painting of The Annunciation we have Leonardo making his personal Annunciation that he was falsely accused, and even outing the two men responsible for the anonymous declaration made to the authorities, Domenico Ghirlandaio aided by Sandro Botticelli.

More on the references made to St Rocco in The Annunciation painting at another time.