Plague Chapels

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Somewhere near the hospital and the Duomo Cathedral in Florence, Italy, on one unassumed street corner, in a little alcove, there is a painting under plexiglass of a Madonna and Child. Stylized and faded, ubiquitous among the Da Vincis and Michelangelos I saw every day in Italy, trite compared to the majesty of the cathedral just down the street, it transfixed me.

Our tour guide called it a “plague chapel.”

Like many medieval cities, disease has laid siege to Florence throughout the centuries. It is a close city. The narrow sidewalks slip like pickpockets through looming buildings, which appear to lean toward each other and talk far above human heads. Walking, you begin to feel like an insect in a channel on the underside of a log. The horizon is never visible; the maze of streets just curves out of view.

The tunnel-like streets make the Duomo Cathedral that much more awe-inspiring. The sanctuary is ponderous, soaring, an effect amplified by sober arcs of white plaster giving way like an opaque winter sky to the muraled dome depicting heaven. It rings with a steady stream of human voices swallowed up in the vault, blended into an eternal echo. From the top of the bell tower, it looks like the cathedral was dropped from heaven, forming the city square like a crater.

But when contagion emptied the cathedral, people painted baby Jesus and his mother, Mary, huddled in alcoves and on the walls of streets hardly more than alleys. Prayer continued there. More than ever, perhaps, people needed incarnation—healing and protection that would come down into the streets, houses, and stoops. The image of God painted on the unreachable dome of the cathedral is God enthroned in heaven, judging the righteous and the wicked. The image of God in these little plague shrines is most often of a child, one hand extended in blessing, sitting in the lap of a girl. The frequent depiction of Mary has lent them the name “Madonelles.”

As I have read about how Italy has suffered because of the COVID-19 pandemic, images of the hospital and the cathedral have surfaced in my memory, but the plague chapel is the most visceral. I hope there is some comfort in ancient patterns of faith woven into those streets, patterns for this particular kind of grief and fear.

Because cathedral majesty seems wildly inappropriate, like talk of “better places” at deathbeds.

Grief craters even Christians. Anxiety makes us buzz frantically around the confines of our control, like flies in jars. Both loss and fear can suck the air from our lungs; the distance between now and the vague “good” in store for us might as well be a mile of moon to be walked without a spacesuit. Was our survival even relevant in his great plan?

We sometimes adopt the idea of sovereignty, meaning the orchestration of suffering and salvation for God's glory in which our good is a footnote, one brick in a huge city, and never to be confused with comfort. In fact, comfort could be a lure of temptation or indicate shallow, untested faith, something that would be choked out by dry ground or thrones. I wonder if I have sometimes believed I will be saved by pain instead of by Christ.

Yet suffering does not make me feel closer to God or more sure of my salvation. I am not comforted when my pain is swallowed up, unnoticed and insignificant, in eternity or even in the supposed betterment of my character. Great plans “working together for good” sounds like talk for cathedrals, not plagues. Suffering curtails perspective. I don’t see the horizon or end of this. I have no interest in the cathedral view of things. Worship, even, becomes impossible. I have nothing to give.

That might be the difference between the cathedral and the plague chapel. Cathedrals are the offerings of generations, faith and work invested in a masterpiece you might never see, evidencing trust in human and divine plans. Plague chapels are quick and desperate acts of supplication. It’s a signal that God needs to come right now into the streets, urgently.

When the image of God planning the cosmos from the cathedral dome seems cold and cruel in the suffocatingly tight confines of misery, we turn to Jesus. It’s simpler: a child in human flesh concerned about our broken bodies. He shares our suffering, even the pain of feeling abandoned and crushed by God.

These physical rituals and shrines offer a balm missing in the high, theological theory of “all things work together for good.” The simple icon lets us look into the eyes of a physically present Christ and sob in anger, terror, and grief.

But is it idolatry? I have just described one image of God for triumphant days and another for plague. If we want to avoid idolatrous images of God fashioned for our circumstances, we might imagine one God adapting his response from empathy to just wrath to serene wisdom. But we know that God does not change.

I haven’t solved the old dilemma of whether God changes, but thinking of the plague chapels and praying for the sick reminds me of another Mary and the story of Lazarus (John 11:1-43), which might be useful. 

Lazarus's friends beg Jesus to come and heal him: “Lord the one you love is sick.” 

Jesus doesn’t go. Only when Lazurus has been buried for several days does Jesus appear, a hollow comfort.

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” his sisters Mary and Martha say.

Jesus tells Martha her brother will rise again.

Martha gives the theological answer: “I believe he will rise on the last day.”

“Take me to the place where you have laid him,” Jesus says.

This story revolves around Jesus’ physical location, around bodies and places, as much as it does around faith and doctrine. Jesus intermingles theology, metaphor, and statements of physical fact so much in this story that Martha and disciples are frequently confused about when Jesus means natural sleep and when he means death, when he means eternal resurrection and when he means immediate physical resurrection. Maybe this is to show God’s transcendent plan and immanent empathy are not divorced from each other. Jesus speaks of God’s glory and is troubled at Mary’s tears.

Jesus weeps.

But Jesus knows that everything will work out for God’s glory and Mary and Martha’s good in just a few minutes. Jesus references God’s glory and plan six times in 43 verses. But Jesus joins Mary and Martha in suffering. The God who observes us from the glory of the cathedral courts of heaven is the same God who weeps over the sick and dead. God planned resurrection and planned to weep.

A central aspect of Christ’s sacrifice is his surrender to be crushed in God’s plan for salvation. “Not my will, but your will,” he says, painfully giving up his will, himself, for God’s plan (Luke 22:42). In Lazurus’ story, though, Jesus was not required to suffer to accomplish the miracle. Jesus willingly grieved because Martha and Mary grieved, and that mattered to the God of the universe in human likeness. Could it be Jesus is showing us how grief works in God’s plan?

God does not trample us under the chariot of his will. God does not violently consume us as fuel for his war engines in an epic battle for his glory. That would be just as inconsistent with his character as actions guided fickle, emotional whims. God is with us in our suffering, and we are also with him in his plan. If we follow Jesus’ example, we can know and profess that there is a greater purpose and plan, and we can grieve because our grief is neither irrelevant nor, I believe, solitary.

That is why Jesus’ mother Mary’s steadfast presence in the Madonnelle shrines is so significant. Mary—whose body was a vessel for the greatest tragedy and triumph of history, Mary, whose whole story and significance are enveloped in the gospel such that she is remembered as nothing other than or beyond it—was not used, abused, or swallowed. Mary’s soul “magnified the Lord.” She participated in a plan she did not fully understand but which made her more, not less, in which God drew her near, and did not simply consume her and cast her aside. Gabriel says to Mary, “Greetings favored one, the Lord is with you.” The Hail Mary begins with these words and ends with “pray for us now and in the hour of our death.” Again, words of blessing and trial go together. It’s all the same prayer; it appeals to the same and singular God.

God’s plan does not minimize or delegitimize our grief, it elevates it to a holy offering. Suffering becomes our opportunity to join God in a moment of his plan, a single image, tender and terrible, like a plague chapel. It can be as simple as saying, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”

About the Author

Emily Stroble

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