During the Black Death of 1348, the Blessed Bernard Tolomei left the safety of his Benedictine monastery in Monte Oliveto and returned to his native Siena to attend to the sick and dying. He succumbed to the plague that same year and soon became the object of religious devotion. An abbot from Bernard's monastic order commissioned this painting in 1736, when Bernard was being considered for sainthood. Giuseppe Maria Crespi interpreted the story's pathos with great depth, expression, and immediacy.
Wearing a white robe and holding a crucifix, Bernard and a fellow monk attend to plague victims in an open-air encampment outside the walls of Siena. On the left, a priest walks under an umbrella, accompanied by an acolyte. Several plague-stricken figures languish on the ground in various stages of death. Below Bernard, a woman slumps over while her small child desperately tries to pull her upright. At her feet, the foreshortened body of a dead infant falls in the area between the acolyte and bowing monk. A woman has perished in the right corner, her gray-skinned body lifeless, thus a man above her holds a cloth over his mouth to avoid smelling the stench. Contorted, highlighted figures emerge from the shadowy darkness to confront the viewer, accordingly heightening the emotion of the drama.