Corruptible Bodies and Contaminating Technologies: Jesuit Devotional Print and the 1656 Plague in Naples

  • Rose Marie San Juan


Few who contracted the bubonic epidemic in Naples in 1656 lived to tell the tale, but some that did attributed their recovery to an unprepossessing printed portrait of Jesuit saint Francis Xavier (Figure 1). For these survivors, the power of this portrait to arrest the flow of contagion was envisaged as bodies pressed and impressed on each other, conjoined in the act of healing much as they were believed to be in the transmission of deadly disease. Giovanni Battista de Angelis, for instance, testified that he, like many of his neighbours, bought a printed portrait of this saint from a street seller, and always carried it inside his shirt except at night when he placed it under his pillow.1 One day he found a huge ulcer in the area of his heart, and after seeing death approach him, he took the portrait of the saint and placed it on the affected area. Immediately he fell asleep and awoke one hour later to find the print and his shirt full of blood and festering while the ulcer had disappeared. The portrait became, like a relic or an icon, the carrier of the presence of the saint,2 but this presence was short-lived and not contained within the materiality of the print, which typically is ignored and even discarded after it has healed the body, usually by extracting corrupt bodily fluids. In fact, Giovanni de Angelis quickly turns his attention from the image of the saint to his own body, as he feels the corrupt liquids trapped inside, measures these in relation to visible body parts, and sees them outside of himself, expelled from his interior and subsumed into the printed body.


Religious Order Urban Space Bodily Contact Bodily Presence Original Painting 
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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2005

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  • Rose Marie San Juan

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