I’ve visited this church many times but until last November, every visit was more-or-less a blur because I visited the Scuola next door first and was in a complete Tintoretto overload haze. So last year, I went to the church first and it finally made an impression on me, a good one. There are some fine paintings in here, by Tintoretto and others, and it’s a nice space.
About the saint, San Rocco (or St. Roch) is another one of the plague saints. He was a French holy man who gained fame as a healer as the Black Death spread across Europe. He’s often pictured in the woods with an angel and his faithful dog companion, a nice image; he’s a lovable saint all around. He died in Montpellier in 1377, and his relics became revered by all those seeking protection and healing from the plague.
So in typical Venetian fashion, a couple of monks went to France in 1484 and stole San Rocco’s body and brought it back to Venice. Because of the possession of the relics of the saint, the confraternity that built the church and the Scuola became very wealthy as plague-fearing people made donations. And then they came into possession of another attraction, a painting with healing powers.
The painting is the Cristo Portacroce or Christ Carrying the Cross by Giorgione (maybe). As stories about its healing powers spread, visitors and donations increased, leading eventually to the decoration of the Scuola with 61 paintings by Tintoretto and its status of one of the six Scuola Grande in Venice.
Renaissance art critic Giorgio Vasari was very matter-of-fact about the miracle-working painting:
“Giorgione did a painting showing Christ carrying the cross for the church of San Rocco, and which now, because of great devotion that is paid to it, works miracles, as anyone can see for himself. “
This painting is now in the Scuola, not the church, and is usually attributed to Titian (though the Scuola’s website says it’s by Giorgione). A grateful recipient of a miracle had a votive copy of the painting carved in marble; this relief can be seen in the church next to the high altar.
Many of the paintings by Tintoretto in this church are scenes from the life of San Rocco, though there are a few other subjects too including this nice Annunciation below. The church also has a couple of paintings by Sebastiano Ricci and one by Pordenone.