Saint of the Day – 4 September – Saint Rosalia (c 1130-c 1160) Virgin, Recluse, known as “La Santuzza” – “The Little Saint.” Born in c1130 at Palermo, Sicily and died in c 1160 at Mount Pellegrino, Italy, of natural causes. Patronages – Vocations in Italy, Italian fishermen of Monterey, Baucina, Benetutti, Bivona, Campofelice di Roccella, Delia, Isola delle Femine, Lentiscosa, Palermo, Pegli, Racalmuto, San Mango Cilento, Santo Stefano Quisquina, Sicily, Vicari – all in Italy and of California. Additional Memorial – 14 July (Festino).
The Roman Martyrology states of her today: “At Palermo. the birthday of St Rosalia, Virgin, a native of that City, issued from the Royal blood of Charlemagne. For the love of Christ, she forsook the princely Court of her father and led a heavenly life alone in the mountains and caverns.“
Not much is known about the life of Santa Rosalia. She was born to a noble family, which claimed descent from Charlemagne She rejected that life, being devoutly religious, instead pursuing one as a recluse in a cave on Mount Pellegrino. 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 [Monte] delle Rose and Quisquina, have taken the resolution to live in this cave for the love of my Lord, Jesus Christ.” She died there alone in 1166.
In 1624 a plague struck Palermo. During this hardship, Rosalia appeared, firstly 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 described. He did what she had asked in the apparition. After her remains were carried around the City three times, the plague ceased. Rosalia was immediately venerated as the Patron Saint of Palermo and a Sanctuary was built in the cave where her remains were discovered.
After she saved the City of Palermo from the plague, St Rosalia became known as a fierce protectress. She was credited with defending the people from earthquakes and storms and was appealed to in prayers for a safe and successful harvest.
In Palermo, the Festino di St Rosalia is held each year on 14 July and continues into the next day. It is a major social and religious event in the City.
Interestingly the devotion to St Rosalia is widespread among the large and mainly Hindu Tamil community of Sri Lankan origin settled in Palermo.[
On 4 September, a tradition of walking barefoot from Palermo up to Mount Pellegrino is observed in honour of Rosalia.
Saint 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 (see also above). She is depicted as a young woman with flowing hair, wearing a Franciscan cowl and reaching down toward the City of Palermo in its peril – became the standard iconography of Rosalia from that time onward. Van Dyck’s series of St. Rosalia paintings have been studied by Gauvin Alexander Bailey and Xavier F Salomon, both of whom curated or co-curated exhibitions devoted to the theme of Italian art and the plague. In March 2020, The New York Times published an article about the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s painting of Saint Rosalia by Van Dyck in the context of COVID-19.