A Plague Amulet & The Zacharias Blessing

In April of 2020 I became interested in a type of woodblock printed anti-plague amulet from the Renaissance called a pestblätter or “plague paper”. I made my own version which I shared with my friends. The amulet is made up of images of saints (St. Roch and St. Sebastian) and a double armed cross (the miraculuous Caravaca Cross) on which is superimposed Zachariah’s Blessing which is a string of characters: ☩ Z ☩ D I A ☩ B I Z ☩ S A B ☩ Z ☩ H G F ☩ B F R S).

You, dear reader, are welcome to use my version for any purpose. I might suggest the traditional usage which is posting it in your home by your door, or possibly printing out small and folding it up so it can be carried to protect against disease.

Plague Amulet
My version of the pestblätter
pdf download

There’s a post in the Wellcome Collection blog that goes into detail about the history and use of these amulets (“Deciphering a central European plague amulet“) and these designs. Thanks to the printing press and cheap paper after the 16th century woodblock prints allowed for many common people to own religious images. Oftentimes these squeezed in as many images of the saints and holy images as possible into the image.

A plague cross surrounded by St. Sebastian, St. Roch, and St
Another plague amulet, unknown year.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

This image from the Wellcome Collection demonstrates the crowded iconography of this genre of printed amulet: the Trinity at the top and the Madonna and Child. On the left of the central “plague cross” is St Sebastian and on the right St Roch and behind the is St John of Nepomuk. Of the trio of saints at the bottom, St. Sebastian and St. Roch are usually paired as intercessors against the plague. Sebastian’s relationship to plague, I’ve previously discussed, was more about his intercession after his martyrdom, and his iconography, whereas St. Roch worked to treated plague victims and recovered miraculously from the plague—he is depicted pointing to a diseased wound on his leg. St John of Nepomuk’s relationship’s to plague, on the other hand, seems less direct, other than the fact that he had a popular cult in the Renaissance, and began to be invoked against and commemorated in plague memorials.

This brings us to the Zacharias Blessing (☩ Z ☩ D I A ☩ B I Z ☩ S A B ☩ Z ☩ H G F ☩ B F R S). From what I can find it was said to be a blessing given by St Zacharias of Jerusalem or sometimes pope Zacharias and approved for use by the council of Trent. It was copied onto many different amulets and the letters are frequently found corrupted. How the formula was created is similar to other Christian abbreviations (IHS, INRI) but each letter stands for a different line of a prayer in latin, a kind of holy acrostic. The crosses stand for the phrase “Crux Christi”.

Medieval ring inscription from Portugal
(The Archaeology of Medieval Europe, Vol. 2: Twelfth to Sixteenth Centuries)

The text of the full blessing is written in the style of the Psalms, taking some quotations from, perhaps in particular the Songs of Ascents. The view of disease is largely based on the ancient miasmatic theory of disease which, although it is discredited, surely has some resonance with aerosol transmission of disease. You can read the full text below. I’ve also made a rough translation of Zacharias Blessing. I was mostly using a German translation as reference, but please enjoy!

Zacharias Blessing

☩ Z ☩ D I A ☩ B I Z ☩ S A B ☩ Z ☩ H G F ☩ B F R S

Crux Christi salva me!Christ’s Cross, save me!
Z. Zelus domus Dei libera me!The zeal of Your house frees me!
Crux Christi vincit et regnat; per lignum crucis libera me Domine ab hac peste!Christ’s Cross overcomes; the cross rules; by the sign of the cross free me, O Lord, from this plague!
D. Deus, Deus meus expelle pestem de loco isto et libera me!God, my God, drive the plague out of this place and free me!
I. In manus tuas. Domine, commendo animam meam et corpus meum!In your hands. Lord, I commend my soul and my body!
A. Ante coelum et terram Deus erat et Deus potens est liberare me ab hac peste!Before the heaven and the earth there was God, and God is powerful to liberate me from this plague!
Crux Christi potens est ad expellendam pestem a loco isto et corpore meo.Christ’s Cross has the power to expel the plague from this place and from my body.
B. Bonum est praestolari auxilium Dei cum silentio ut expellat pestem a me.It is good to wait quietly for God’s help, that he may drive this plague away from me.
I. Inclinabo cor meum ad faciendas justificationes tuas et non confundar, quoniam invocavi te.I will incline my heart to performing your laws and I will not be confounded for I have called upon you.
Z. Zelavi super iniquos pacem peccatorum videns et speravi in te.I was zealous over those with inequities, seeing the peacefulness of sinners.
Crux Christi fugeat Daemones, aerem corruptum et pestem expellat.Christ’s Cross makes demons and polluted air flee, driving away the plague.
S. Salus tua ego sunt, dicit Dominus: clama ad me, et ego exaudiam te et liberabo te ab hac peste.I am your salvation, the Lord says: “Call to me and I will answer you, and free you from plague”.
A. Abyssus abyssum invocat et voce tua expulisti Daemones: libera me ab hac peste.Deep calls unto deep and the voice expels demons: liberate me from this plague.
B. Beatus vir, qui sperat in Domino et non respexit in vanitates et insanias falsas!Blessed is the man that puts his trust in the Lord, and does not seek vanities, lies and foolishness!
Crux Christi, quae ante fuit in opprobrium et contumeliam et nunc in gloriam et nobilitatem, sit mihi in Salutem et expellat a loco isto diabolum et aerem corruptum et pestem a corpore.The Cross of Christ, which was disgrace and shame, but is now glory and nobility be my Salvation, expel the devil and polluted air from this place and the plague from my body.
Z. Zelus honoris Dei convertat me antequam moriar et in nomine tuo salva me ab hac peste.May zeal for honor of God convert me before I die, and in your name save me from this plague.
Crucis Signum libert populum Dei et a peste cos, qui confidunt in eo.The Sign of the Cross saves the people of God, and all who trust in Him are freed from the plague.
H. Haeccine reddis Domino popule stulte? redde vota tua offerens sacrificium laudis et fide illi, qui potens est istum locum et me ab hac peste liberare, quoniam qui confidunt in eo, non confundentur.Will the foolish return to the Lord? Fulfill your vows by offering praise and faith in Him, because He is powerful to free this us and this place from the plague; for those who take refuge in him shall not be disappointed.
G. Gutturi meo et faucibus meis adhaeret lingua mea, si non benedixero tibi, libera sperantes in te, in te confido, libera me Deus ab hac peste et locum istum, in quo nomen tuum invocatur.May my tongue become stuck to my jaw if I don’t praise you. Deliver those who hope for you. I put my trust in you. Get rid of this plague from this place, f or I have invoked your name.
F. Factae sunt tenebrae super universam terram in morte. Domine Deus mens, fiat lubrica et tenebrosa diaboli potestas. Et quia ad hoc venisti, fili Dei vivi, ut dissolvas opera diaboli, expelle potentia tua a loco isto et a me servo tuo pestem istam. Discedat aer corruptus a me in tenebras exteriores.At your death, O Lord, total darkness covered the earth. The slippery and dark power of the Devil came, until the return of the Son of the living God, who destroyed the works of the Devil. With your power and drive away the plague from me and this place; may the corrupted air depart to the outer darkness.
Crux Christi, defende nos et expelle a loco isto pestem, et servum tuum libera, quia benignus es et misericors et multae misericordiae et verax.Christ’s Cross, defend us and drive the plague out of this place and free your servant, because you are kind and merciful, you are of great mercy and truthfulness.
B. Beatus qui non respexit in vanitates et insanias falsas; in die mala liberabit cum Deus. Domine, in te speravi, libera me ab hac peste.Blessed is he who does not regard vanities, and false extravagances; in this day of wickedness. Lord, I have trusted in you: free me from this plague.
F. Factus est Deus in refugium mihi, quia in te speravi, libera me ab hac peste.The Lord has become my refuge; because I trust in you, free me from this plague.
R. Respice in me Domine, Deus mens Adonai, de Sede sancta Majestatis tuae, et miserere mei et propter misericordiam, tuam ab hac peste libera me.Look thou upon me, O Lord my God, Adonai, from the holy seat of Majesty, and have mercy on me, and for the sake of your mercy, in Thy greatness deliver me from this pestilence.
S. Salus mea Tu es; sana me d sanabor, salvum me fac et salvus ero.You are my salvation. Heal me and I shall be healed; save me and I shall be saved.