Saint Rosalia

Santa Rosalia

Feast Day: July 14 (celebration); September 4 (Pilgrimage)

Patron Saint of Palermo, Italy; Sicilian Mariners, and protector from plagues

Other Names: La Santuzza (the Little Saint)

Essay by Yael Cano

Rosalia was born the daughter of Sinibald, the Lord of Roses and Quisquina, in 1130, Palermo, Italy. She passed her youth in the Sicilian royal court, as her kindness and beauty led her to be a lady-in-waiting to the queen. Once she was grown, as Rosalia’s parents were considering a husband for her, a knight named Baldovino saved the king from the attack of a wild animal and, in turn for saving the king’s life, asked for Rosalia’s hand in marriage. The marriage was agreed upon, but when Rosalia was to meet her fiancé, she had a vision of Jesus crucified covered in blood. Taking this vision as a sign, Rosalia had no doubt that she wanted to leave and worship God for the rest of her life. She left her home to live in a cave in Quisquina where she dedicated herself to prayers and penance in solitude for twelve years until she had to move away. Before leaving the cave, she carved on the walls: “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” and added the number twelve to the corner, which has been interpreted as the number of years she lived in the cave.  Rosalia returned to Palermo and moved to a second cave in Monte Pellegrino, living there for the rest of her life. Before she died on the September 4, 1166, legend says that an angel appeared predicting her death. As soon as the angel left, she began preparing for her death, by reclining on the cave wall with one arm resting on her pillow and the other holding a cross.

Although there were many miracles attributed to her name, Rosalia was overall ignored until St. Benedict the Moor, a mystic who was very close to God, had a prophesy that a plague would hit Palermo and that Rosalia’s lost remains should finally be found and save the city from the plague. Years passed, and in 1623, Geronima Lo Gatto was dying in a hospital when a young woman appeared in her room. As the young woman walked closer, Lo Gatto recognized her as Saint Rosalia, who told her to not be scared, as she was going to live if she walked to Mount Pellegrino. Two days later, Lo Gatto was cured, and in the next year, she walked to Mount Pellegrino to thank for the miracle received. There, Saint Rosalia appeared to her again, telling Lo Gatto that she will show her where her remains were placed. Lo Gatto returned to tell her husband and he and eight others returned to the mountain to find the body. While this was happening, a huge plague broke out in Palermo, killing hundreds of people. Attempting to stop the plague, the city attempted to pray and invoke four of its patronesses, though none of it worked. Trying for one last time, the city invoked Saint Rosalia and a procession walked to Monte Pellegrino in her honor for the first time. Her bones and other relics including a terra-cotta crucifix, a silver Greek cross, and a string of beads were finally found a couple months later and her bones were paraded around the city, officially ending the plague. Thankful, the city of Palermo made Saint Rosalia their patron saint.

Saint Rosalia is often depicted wearing a course woolen cloth, typical of the Augustine nuns with a cord or rope tied around her waist (fig. 1) symbolizing her hermit life. Her hair is loose and on it she wears a crown of roses given to her by angles during her death. In her right hand she may often be portrayed holding a skull, palm of martyrs, or a scourge, symbols of not just her hermit life but also of her martyrdom and her ascetic life. The skull Saint Rosalia holds is also a symbol of her lost remains, which were later found and paraded around the city of Palermo to end a plague. In one of her hand, she may be portrayed as holding a crucifix or lilies (figs. 1, 2) as symbols of her chastity or a palm for her martyrdom. Along with these items, Saint Rosalia may also be depicted holding a rosary which she had at the time of her death; a pilgrim’s staff which she used to travel to Mount Pellegrino; a chisel or pick axe representing the tool used to find her remains; and a bible (fig. 3). 

Figure 1. Saint Rosalia, Virgin / Santa Rosalia, Virgen

Anonymous, Mexico. Nineteenth Century.

Oil on tin. 14 x 10”. NMSU Art Gallery Collection # 1966.6.38.

Donor: Mr. Fran E. Tolland.

Figure 2. Saint Rosalia, Virgin / Santa Rosalia, Virgen

Anonymous, Mexico. Nineteenth Century.

Oil on tin. NMSU Art Gallery Collection # 1966.4.1.

Figure 3. Saint Rosalia, Virgin / Santa Rosalia, Virgen

Anonymous, Mexico. Nineteenth Century.

Oil on tin. NMSU Art Gallery Collection # 1964.3.8.


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