This panel relates to a work of the same subject commissioned from Rubens by the Confraternity of Saint Roch in Aalst. The commission was for a painting for an altarpiece dedicated to Saint Roch in the church of Saint Martin, and Rubens was paid in June 1626. Installation of the altarpiece, which was wooden and had sculptures, was completed in 1632 but Rubens’ painting was finished by 1626, the date of a print based on the painting by Paulus Pontius (1603–1658).
The present oil on panel has been considered a preliminary sketch for the Aalst altarpiece. However, if the two images are compared, it is evident that there are differences and modifications. Among the most important is the way that the background is painted in the present work, including as it does the form of a semi-circular arch, which is clearly visible to the naked eye although partly concealed beneath a thin layer of pigment. Although including this feature, the composition as completed has a rectangular format, in contrast to the finished altarpiece, which is semi-circular at the top. Other variations are evident in the upper part of the composition such as the poses and gestures of the figures.
These modifications, particularly the spatial ones, make the figures appear to float, while the overall composition seems rather incoherent. They led Gaskell to consider the present work to be by Rubens’ studio. That author also noted that the drawing of some of the figures is neither particularly skilled nor dynamic, while the handling is irregular, alternating as it does highly defined areas with others that are barely sketched in. Gaskell considered this panel to be by the circle of Rubens, either by an independent copyist or by a member of the workshop.
The story of Saint Roch is recounted in The Golden Legend by Jacopo da Voragine. Born in Montpellier, he gave up all his worldly goods and went on a pilgrimage to Rome. He cured the sick with the sign of the cross, but caught the plague and retired to a wood to die alone. During his sufferings an angel sent by God cured him of his plague sores, while a dog from a nearby village fed him with bread that it had taken from its owner. Once cured, Saint Roch returned to his native city where he was arrested and died in prison. He is identified in art by his pilgrim’s garb and the dog that usually accompanies him.
The present panel shows the moment when Christ designates Saint Roch with a pointing gesture as patron saint of plague sufferers. In the upper part of the panel we see the principal figures: Christ, on the right, wrapped in striking crimson drapery and advancing towards the saint while an angel on the left holds a scroll with the inscription: “Eris in peste patronus”. Saint Roch is depicted between them, kneeling with his dog lying by his side. He turns his head and upper body towards Christ. In the lower part of the painting in a dramatic architectural setting, six figures implore the saint’s protection with suffering gestures.
The panel was first exhibited to the public at the Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt in 1925 and published in the catalogue of that exhibition. At that date it was in a private collection in that city. It was acquired for the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection in 1984.