Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Saint Bernardino of Siena, Advocate for the Holy Name

Giovanni di Ser Giovanni, San Bernardino Preaching
Italian, Mid-15th Century
Birminghan (AL), Birmingham Museum of Art
Saint Bernardino of Siena is a saint who is little recognized in the United States today, except perhaps by the residents of San Bernardino, California, which is named after him.  However, for many centuries, and especially in Italy, he was one of the most widely known of the medieval saints.  He also has the distinction of being one of the first saints whose real face has come down to us.  We actually know what he looked like in life.  He is also responsible for promoting one of the best known and most ubiquitous symbols of Catholic Christian culture.

Early Life

Bernardino Albizzeschi was born in the south Tuscan town of Massa Marittima, not far from Siena, in 1380.1 By the age of six both of his parents had died and he was brought up by an aunt.  As a child he would have followed the usual medieval studies, the trivium and quadrivium, what we would think of as a basic and advanced elementary education.  While still a young teenager he joined the Confraternity of Our Lady at a hospital attached to one of the churches in the town.  There he helped take care of the sick while also studying law, both civil and canon.  His family may have expected him to become a lawyer or civic officer, following in the footsteps of his father, who had been the town governor.  But God had other plans for him.

In 1400, when Bernardino was 20 years old, the plague, which had wrought such terrible devastation in Europe in the middle years of the fourteenth century, returned to Tuscany.  When it got to Massa Marittima the entire weight of caring for its victims fell on the shoulders of Bernardino and ten companions whom he organized.  The four months spent battling the plague, which no doubt he also caught, left him with ill health for the rest of his life.  However, this didn’t stop him.

Bernardino Capitelli, San Bernardino Enters the Franciscan Order
From The Life of Saint Bernardino of Siena
Italian, c. 1610-1639
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

He joined the Observant branch of the Franciscan order in 1403 and was ordained a priest in 1404.  His prior education probably gave him a boost in preparation.  He was charged with a special preaching ministry the following year and began his career as an important preacher throughout Italy.  This was his principal career for the rest of his life, in spite of a break from 1438-1442 during which he served as Vicar General of the Observant Franciscans.

Stirring Preacher

In addition to being a Scholastic philosopher, Bernardino was, by all accounts, a very effective colloquial preacher, characterized as being able to express complex contemporary thought into simple, colloquial language that could be understood by everyone.  
Saint Bernardino of Siena Preaching
Italian, Before 1444
Oxford, Bodleian Library
MS Canon. Misc. 312, fol.  44r
However, his preaching was not without controversy, both in his own time and in ours.  For one thing, he didn’t preach just on the readings of the day, as is so common now, but about the hard things, the sins that people commit against God, each other and themselves, which are not always mentioned in Scripture.  This is never easy stuff, then or now.  It is unsettling.  It makes some people feel ashamed, it makes others penitent, it makes some angry.  Among Bernardino’s topics were: usury (the charging of interest on borrowed money), the ethics of business, whether the acquisition of wealth could be a good thing (he proposed that it could be useful for society as a whole), homosexuality, condemnation of the abuse of women, emotionally and physically.  As good preaching should be, it was as contrary to expectations then as it would be now.  But my concerns here are not with any of these topics. 

Attributed to Sassetta, Saint Bernardino Preaching
Predella of a full length portrait of Saint Bernardino
Italian, c. 1444
Siena, Pinacoteca Nazionale
In this picture, probably painted by someone who knew him, the dove of the Holy Spirit is shown whispering in the saint's ear as he speaks.

What I am interested in is something else entirely.  It is the way in which Bernardino and his preaching have impacted the history of art, especially of the art of his home town and of Italy during the Quattrocento as a whole.  As has been said “More than any other figure Bernardino
fostered the perpetuation of earlier imagery, but he himself became the new subject. It is as if his physical appearance encouraged realism in Sienese art”.2 

At that time in Italy preaching had the kind of appeal that today we associate with spectator sports like baseball or football.  Preachers often drew huge crowds to hear them.  The crowds were often too large for any church to hold, so wooden pulpits were often set up in town squares to accommodate the crowds.  We have evidence of this from paintings and from the wonderful sketch book of Jacopo Bellini of Venice now at the British Museum.

Jacopo Bellini, Saint Bernardino of Siena Preaching
From the Sketch-Book of Jacopo Bellini
Italian, c. 1440-1470
London, British Museum
Saint Bernardino preached in Venice in 1443, the year before his death. so Bellini probably saw him.

We have several images of such events early in the iconography of Saint Bernardino, painted or sketched by artists who could actually have been present for the events depicted.  In these pictures Bernardino is often depicted holding one or other symbol as a kind of prop, often while gesturing with his free hand.  One of the symbols is the crucifix, the other is the symbol for the Holy Name of Jesus, which he himself designed. Bernardino himself seems to have been very interested in art, commissioning several paintings and statues for his convent and for churches in the city and referring to examples in his sermons.3
Sano di Pietro_Saint Bernardino Preaching
at  the Church of San Francesco in Siena
Italian, 1445
Siena, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo
In this picture the pulpit is set up on the extreme right
of the picture.
Sano di Pietro, Saint Bernardino Preaching
at the Campo of Siena
Italian, 1445
Siena, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo
In this picture the pulpit is set up in front of the 
Siena Palazzo Publico, which is decorated with
the kinds of emblems Bernardino was trying to
replace with his emblem of the Holy Name

Studio of Lorenzo Vecchietta, Saint Bernardino Preaching
Italian, c. 1450-1480
Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery
The pulpit in this picture is directly above the head of the young man in the light blue cloak standing slightly to the left of center.  Trumpeters are announcing the beginning of the sermon just above the head of the man in the pink cloak a few steps to the right.  

Sano di Pietro, Saint Bernardino Preaching
Italian, c. 1460-1480
Private Collection
This picture shows a more intimate setting.  It may even be an indoor one (note the tapestry on the walls) or perhaps in the courtyard of a private home.  The audience would seem to be just one family and their servants.  

Francesco di Giorgio Martini, Saint Bernardino Preaching
Italian, c. 1470-1475
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Robert Lehman Collection
I love this little picture.  Not only does it convey some
of the saint's energy, but it also captures the raw wood
of the temporary pulpit.
St. Bernardino Preaching
Polish, 1503
Jawor (Poland), Church of the Blessed Virgin
This wall painting shows that the story of the energy
and power of Saint Bernardino's preaching had
traveled all the way to Poland in just over 50 years.

The Holy Name of Jesus

The Holy Name of Jesus is one of the principal things about which Bernardino preached.  This must have been his most burning topic, for it is the one by which his name (and even his face) have been transmitted to the present and the one that got him into the most trouble in his own lifetime.  It may have developed as he dealt with a practical problem.  As readers of the works of Dante will remember, this is the time in which the patchwork of small states that comprised the Italian peninsula following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, were bitterly divided into two powerful warring factions, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines.  Dante was a White Guelph, a further subdivision of the Guelph party, which caused him to be exiled from Florence by fellow Guelphs of the opposing part of the party when it took control of the city.  In general, the Guelphs supported the Pope on the Italian peninsula, while the Ghibellines supported the position and influence of the Holy Roman Emperor.

All of the towns of Italy belonged to one or the other faction, which frequently led to warfare between them.  Individual families and city governments often placed emblems of the faction to which they belonged on the walls of the town buildings, even of the churches.  One of Bernardino’s main roles as a preacher was to encourage peace among people and among the city-states.  In the course of his efforts he came up with a symbol which he proposed to everyone as a replacement for these politicized emblems.  He designed a new symbol, incorporating a much older, Christian one, which could override the political and lead to peace.
Dish with the Monogram of Christ
Italian (Faenza), c.1500
London, Victoria and Albert Museum
The symbol he designed was based on three letters representing the first three letters of the name of Jesus “YHS or IHS”, known as the Monogram of Jesus.  At its most basic, the symbol proposed by Bernardino is the three letters, in gold, painted on a wooden panel with a deep blue background and surrounded by a golden sunburst of twelve large rays and many smaller ones.  The Monogram of Jesus had been in use for many centuries by the time San Bernardino began to propose surrounding it with a sunburst.  However, although the basic use of the letters of the name of Jesus was centuries old, this innovation in its display, and his preaching of it, brought him under suspicion in some ecclesiastical quarters.  He was summoned to Rome in 1426 to stand trial for heresy.  Not only was he able to refute the charges, but he expressed himself so well that the Pope invited him to preach to the papal household (a position made permanent a bit over 100 years later and currently held by another Franciscan, Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, of the Capuchin branch of the order). 
Andrea del Castagno, Saint Bernardino of Siena
Italian, c.1450
Vetralla, Church of San Francesco

Later Life

After preaching to the papal household, Bernardino returned to his preaching in the towns of the Italian city-states, with a new authority.  This helped him to accomplish some of his intentions of bringing peace to the warring factions while spreading devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus.  During these years he was offered the office of bishop in three different cities, Siena, Ferrara and Urbino, all of which he refused in order to continue his itinerant preaching.   Consequently, his iconography may include three bishop’s miters.

Saint Bernardino of Siena
Italian, Second Half of 15th Century
Cremona, Museo Civico Ala Ponzone
Dario da Pordenone, San Bernardino of Siena
Italian, c. 1460-1470
Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Taddeo Crivelli, Saint Bernardino of Siena
From the Gualenghi-d'Este Hours
Italian (Ferrara), c.1469-1473
Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum
MS Ludwig IX 13, fol. 195v

However, he did accept the call to serve as Vicar General of the Observant Friars Minor in 1438, which limited his preaching.  He resigned as Vicar General in 1442 in order to continue preaching the name of Jesus and was on a preaching tour of southern Italy when he died on May 20, 1444. 

Pinturicchio, Death of Saint Bernardino
Italian, c. 1484-1486
Rome, Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, Capella Bufalini

The First Portraits

Due to his renown and obviously holy life a movement for his canonization was undertaken within a few months of his death.  He was indeed canonized within six years, on May 24, 1450.  The movement for his canonization and its successful completion resulted in the creation of an iconography that is unique for his time, for the pictures presented to us are actual portraits.

Up to this time images of the saints or of those proposed for sainthood were largely idealized.  They were recognizably human faces, but without individuality.  This began to change with the images of Saint Bernardino.  At his death a wax cast of his face was made.  Thanks to this death mask, artists were able to produce images that actually are identifiable as real portraits.  Saint Bernardino is, therefore, the very first saint whose distinctive, individual face can be recognized with reasonable accuracy.  And, it is impressive how carefully artists followed the death mask.  We can easily recognize the small oval face, with the distinctive sunken cheeks, toothless mouth and pointy chin in every painting in which he is represented. 
Death Mask of Saint Bernardino of Siena
Italian, 1444
L'Aquila, Convent of San Bernardino

His image was widely spread during the six years between his death and his canonization by numerous works derived from the death mask model.  Further, many of the first artists to produce works with his image had actually known and even worked with and for him. So, for them, he was a living memory.  Some of the early images depict only his head and shoulders, others (following a picture commissioned almost immediately by Giovanni da Capestrano, another Observant Franciscan and later a saint himself) included his entire body.  
Sano di Pietro_Saint Bernardino of Siena
Italian, 1445-1460
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lehman Collection

Sano Di Pietro, Saint Bernardino
Italian, c. 1444-1450
Siena, Pinacoteca Nazionale
Giovanni di Paolo
Italian, c.1450
Trequanda, Confratery of the Holy Trinity and St. Bernardino

Anonymous, Saint Bernardino
Italian, c. 1450
Casarano, Church of Our Lady of Sorrows

Especially influential in dispersing the actual portrait was a medallion designed by the artist Antonio Marescotti, based on the earliest images and, possibly, on a plaster cast taken from the death mask.  This little work in metal was able to travel wide and far. 4
Antonio Marescotti, Saint Bernardino of Siena
Italian, c. 1444-1450
Washington, National Gallery of Art
The text surrounding the portrait is taken from Acts 1:1 "Coepit facere et posta docere" (from the words of the Acts writer regarding all that Jesus  began to do and teach)

Antonio Marescotti, Reverse of the Medaillion of Saint Bernardino
Italian, c. 1444-1450
Washington, National Gallery of Art
The reverse of the medal features the symbol for the Holy Name which Bernardino proposed.  It is surrounded by a quotation from the Gospel of John (John 17:6), "Manifestavi Nomen Tuum Hominibus" (I have manifested your name to men) and the name of the maker "Antonio Marescotto da Ferrara".

Diffusion of His Image

Following his canonization, the Franciscan order encouraged the distribution of the image of their newest saint through commissions for their churches throughout Italy and beyond.
Jacopo Bellini, Saint Bernardino of Siena
Italian, c. 1450-1455
Private Collection
Style of Veccietta, Bust of St. Bernardino
Italian,  Mid-15th Century
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

Vincenzo Foppa, Saint Bernardino of Siena
Italian, c. 1450
Pisa, Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio

Giorgio Schiavone, Saint Bernardino of Siena
From the Sant' Niccolo Altarpiece, Padua
Italian, c. 1456-1461
London, National Gallery
Lorenzo d'Alessandro, St. Bernardino of Siena
Italian, c. 1475-1500
Avignon, Musée du Petit Palais

Andrea Mantegna, The Monogram of Christ with Saints Anthony of Padua and Bernardino of Siena
Italian, 1452
Padua, Museo Antoniano
The  text that encircles the Monogram comes from Philippians 2:10 "In nomine Iesu omne genuflectatur caelestium et terrestrium et infernorum" (At the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven, on earth and under the earth).

During the remainder of the fifteenth century Saint Bernardino’s fame and face spread far and wide throughout Europe.  And in the majority of these pictures he is shown holding or pointing to the image of the holy name of Jesus, the symbol of the devotion which he worked so hard to spread.

Promoting Devotion to the Holy Name

Attributed to Domenico di Francesco d'Antonio, Saints Francis, Bernardino and Anthony of Padua
Italian, c. 1451-1470
Cortona, Museo Diocesano
Antonio Vivarini, Saints Jerome, Bernardino and Louis of Toulouse
Italian, c. 1451-1456
Venice, San Francesco della Vigna
Benvenuto di Giovanni, Saint Bernardino of Siena
Italian, c. 1474
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection
Vincenzo Foppa, Saint Bernardino of Siena
Italian, c.1495-1500
Washington, National Gallery of Art

Preaching and Miracles

Other images focus on the reasons for the regard in which he was held, primarily on his preaching and on his posthumous miracles. 

Neroccio de' Landi, Saint Bernardine Preaching in the Campo
Italian, c. 1470
Siena, Museo Civico, Palazzo Publico
Domenico Beccafumi, Saint Bernardino Preaching
Italian, c. 1537
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Sano di Pietro, San Bernardino Reviving a Drowned Infant
Italian, c. 1450-1470
Private Collection
Sano di Pietro, San Bernardino Restoring the Child Carino, Drowned in a Millpond, to Life
Italian, c. 1450-1470
Private Collection
Sano di Pietro_Donna Pema Cured on Approaching Saint Bernardino's Body
Italian, c. 1450-1470
Private Collection
Saint Bernardino, Rescuing a Boy Drowned in a River
From a Book of Hours
Italian (Naples), c. 1460
Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum
MS Ludwig IX 12, fol. 334v
Pietro Perugino, The Healing of a Mute by Saint Bernardino
Italian, 1473
Perugia, Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria
Pietro Perugino, The Healing of a Young Girl by Saint Bernardino
Italian, 1473
Perugia, Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria
Matteo di Giovanni, Saint Bernardino Restoring Life to Carino Aquila Drowned in a Millpond
Italian, Early 1480s
Private Collection

As a Patron

Still others emphasized his power as an intercessor and patron.  

Giovanni Antonio de'Ferrari, Saint Bernardino Presenting a Donor to the Virgin and Child
Italian, Second Half of 15th Century
Cremona, Museo Civico Ala Ponzone
Gerard David, Canon Bernardino Salviati with Saints Martin, Bernardino and Donatiian
Flemish, c. 1501-1506
London, National Gallery

With Other Saints in the Sacra Conversazione

He is frequently, indeed very frequently, one of the saints that appear in the so-called Sacra Conversazione type of picture.  In these saints accompany images of the Madonna and Child or of biblical images. 
Sano di Pietro, Madonna and Child with Saints Bernardino, Jerome and Two Angels
Italian, c. 1450-1481
Detroit, Institute of Arts
Sano di Pietro, Madonna and Child with Staints Jerome and Bernerdino of Siena
Italian, c. 1450
Altenburg, Lindenau-Museum

Sano di Pietro, Madonna and Child with Saints Jerome and Bernardino, with Angels
Italian, c. 1450-1480
Siena, Basilica dell' Osservanza
Zanobi di Jaopo di Piero Machiavelli, Madonna and Child Entroned with Saints Sebastian, Andrew, Bernardino, Paul, Lawrence and Augustine
Italian, c. 1460s
Boston, Museum 
Piero della Francesca, Pala Montefeltro, Madonna and Child with Saints and Angels
Made for the Church of San Bernardino in Urbino
Italian, 1472-1474
Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera
Saint Bernardino stands at the left between Saints John the Baptist and Jerome.
Francesco di Giorgio Martini, Nativity with Saints Bernardino and Thomas Aquinas
Italian, c. 1475
Siena, Pinacoteca Nazionale

Alvise Vivarini, Madonna and Child with Saints Anne and Joachim and Saints Louis of Toulouse, Anthony of Padua, Francis of Assisi and Bernardino of Siena
Italian, c. 1480
Venice, Gallerie dell'Accademia
Benozzo Gozzoli, Saints Nicholas of Tolentino, Roch, Sebastian and Bernardino of Siena with Kneeling Donors
Italian, 1481
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Cima da Conegliano, Lamentation with Saints Francis of Assisi and Bernardino of Siena
Italian, c. 1495-1505
Ferrara, Pinacoteca Nazionale-Gallerie Estensi
Pietro Perugino, Madonna and Child with Saints Francis of Assisi and Bernardino of Siena
Italian, 1496
Perugia, Museo Nazionale dell'Umbria
Marco Meloni, M&C with Saints John the Baptist, Bernardino of Siena, Francis of Assisi and Jerome
Italian, 1504
Modena, Galleria Estense di Modena
Workshop of Luca Signorelli, Masonna and Child with Saints Michael,Anthony of Padua, Bernardino of Siena, and Nicolas of Myra
Italian, c. 1510-1515
Cortona, Museo Diocesano

Outside of Italy

His popularity was not restricted to Italy either.  He frequently appears in works by artists from Northern Europe and Spain. 
Saint Bernardino of Siena
German, c.1465
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Master of the Legend of Saint Ursula, Saints Bernardino of Siena and Anthony Abbot
Flemish, c. 1483
Indianapolis, Museum of Art
Attributed to the Ghent Gradual Master, Saints Francis, Clare and Bernardino
From a Prayer Book
Flemish, c. 1460
London, British Library
MS Stowe 23, fol. 62
Master of the Glorification of Mary, Saints Clare, Bernardino, Bonaventure and Francis
German, c. 1480
Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corbaud
Saint Bernardino of Siena
From a Prayer Book
French (Paris), 1485-1495
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS H3, fol. 173v
Master of St. Severin, Saints Louis of Toulouse and Bernardino of Siena
German, c.1500
Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum

Continuing Popularity, Growing Idealization

His popularity continued for well over two centuries.  However, as time passed, the connection of the work of art and the portrait of the saint, so strong at the beginning, began to diminish.  Artists felt free to give Saint Bernardino an idealized face that was not his own.
Girolamo dell Pecchia, Saint Bernardino with Two Angels
Italian, c. 1510
Munich, Bayerisches Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek
Attrib Bonifazio de'Pitati, Sacra Conversazione with Saints Jerome, Justina, Ursula and Bernardino of Siena
Italian, c. 1520-1530
Bangor (Wales), Penrhyn Castle, National Trust
Lorenzo Lotto, Sacra Conversazione with Saints Joseph, Bernardino of Siena, John the Baptist ans Anthony Abbot
Italian, 1521
Bergamo, Church of Saint Bernardino in Pignolo
Moretto da Brescia, Madonna and Child with Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Catherine of Siena with Saints Jerome, Joseph, Bernardino of Siena, Nicholas of Bari and Francis of Assisi
Italian, c.1540-1545
London, National Gallery
Anonymous Lombard Painter, Saint Bernardino of Siena with an Angel
Italian, First half of 17th Century
Sassuolo, Palazzo Ducale di Sassuolo
Fulvio Signorini, Saint Bernardino of Siena
Italian, c. 1600
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Ventura di Arcangelo Salimbeni, Holy Trinity with Saints Peter and Bernardino of Siena
Italian, c. 1600
Ajaccio, Palais Fesch, Musée des Beaux-Arts

El Greco, Saint Bernardino of Siena
Greco-Spanish, 1603
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
Carlo Bononi, Dead Christ Adored by Angels and Saints Sebastian and Bernardino of Siena
Italian, Before 1618
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Only the Franciscan habit, the three miters and the edge of the Monogram peeking out from between two of them identify this figure as Saint Bernardino.  Facial resemblance has been reimagined.
Francesco Maffei, Madonna and Child with Saints Charles Borromeo, Bernardino of Sienaand Anthony of Padua
Italian, c, 1640
Sarzana, Oratorio del Carmine
Here only the Monogram held near his head by a cherub identifies Saint Bernardino.
Alonso Cano, Saint John of Capistrano and Saint Bernardino of Siena
Spanish, c. 1653-1657
Grenada, Museo de Bellas Artes de Granada

Antonio Raggi, San Bernardino of Siena
Italian, 1660s
Siena, Cathedral, Capella Chigi

By the end of the eighteenth century his popularity began to wane and by our time he has become rather obscure.

Donato Creti, Glorification of Saint Bernardino of Siena
Italian, c.1700-1710
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Giuseppe di Garbo, Saints Bonaventure, Bernardino and John of Capestrano
Italian, c. 1768-1800
Castelbuono, Church of San Francesco
Francisco de Goya, Sermon of Saint Bernardino of Siena
Spanish, 1784
Madrid, Basilica of San Francisco el Grande
© M. Duffy, 2020

1.  For the outline of his life see: Robinson, Paschal. "St. Bernardine of Siena." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 20 May 2020

2.  Strehlke, Carl Brandon. “Art and Culture in Renaissance Siena” in Christiansen, Keith; Kanter, Laurence B.; Strehlke, Carl Brandon.  Painting in Renaissance Siena: 1420-1500, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1988, p. 42.

3. Strehlke, Carl Brandon, op cit., p. 52.

4.  For the beginnings of the iconography of Saint Bernardino, especially regarding the use of the funerary death mask see:
  • Israëls, Machtelt.  “Absence and Resemblance:  Early Images of Bernardino of Siena and the Issue of Portraiture (With a New Proposal for Sassetta)”, I Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance, Vol. 11 (2007), pp. 72-114.
  • Cobianchi, Robert.  “Fashioning the Imagery of a Franciscan Observant Preacher:  Early Renaissance Portraiture of Bernardino of Siena in Northern Italy”, I Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance, Vol. 12 (2009), pp. 55-83.

Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

Quotations in Latin are taken from the Latin Vulgate of Saint Jerome, which is available online at: a) and b)

No comments: