Monday, May 20, 2013

Saint of the Month: St. Bernardino of Sienna!

Francisco Goya, 1746-1828 -- Expected Tournament
Debut August 10, 2013.  The man on the right is thought
to be Goya's self-portrait.

Saint Bernardine of Siena

AKA: Bernadino of Siena, Bernadine of Siena, Bernardino of Siena
Feast Day: May 20.

Really Existed? Yes.
Timeframe: 1380 – 1444.
Place: Italy

Credentials: Canonized by Pope Nicolas V in 1450.
Martyrdom: None.

Patron Saint of: advertisers, compulsive gambling, lungs, respiratory problems, and hoarseness, public relations, Italy, and San Bernardino, California.
Symbolism: a short, elderly Franciscan with three mitres at his feet, a tablet inscribed IHS.

Saint Bernarndino is in the top tier of the Catholic saints, and I confess that this puzzles me a little.  He keeps company on canonical short-lists -- books that treat of 100 or 200 saints, for instance -- with key figures from the gospels or the history of the early church, with important Popes and Christian kings, and with people whose martyrdom or working of miracles is the stuff of legend.  He seems a little out of place in their company.  What St. Bernardino was, was, a highly successful revivalist.

After a pious childhood (he was an orphan raised by his aunt, and there are many tales casting him as a real prodigy in the condemnation of vice) he entered service at a hospital in Sienna.  When it was abandoned by its doctors in the face of a horrific plague, he rose to the occasion, recruiting other young men to help him in giving hope, comfort, and such medical treatment as could be drummed up under the circumstances.  It is interesting to me that I've found no account implying that St. Bernardino's hospital was a site of miraculous cures; instead, they say that he got the place running again, kept the staff as cheerful as possible, and probably saved a lot of lives through his courage, hard work, and administrative abilities.  It's hard not to admire this aspect of the man, but the hospital work is not considered central to his story.

Having become a Franciscan monk after the end of the plague, Bernardino became an itinerant preacher.  He traveled all over Italy, giving fiery and inspirational sermons that drew huge crowds.  We are told that his voice was initially too weak for him to be a good speaker, but that the Virgin Mary intervened to give him volume appropriate to his task.

Bernardino's trademark gesture was ending his sermons by holding up a tablet on which the name of Jesus was written, and inviting the crowd to "adore Christ with him on their knees."  This apparently angered a lot of people, and led the Pope to personally prohibit him from preaching for a while.  I think I understand this: the tablet is an object, and to use it as a focus of worship could be construed as an act of idolatry.  All sources treat this objection as having been silly and misguided, however, which leads me to a hypothesis about why Bernardino is considered an important saint.  I wonder if his tablet provided a sort of "test case" by which physical objects -- by extension, the traditional iconography of the modern western Catholic Church -- were determined to be admissible in the practice of Christian worship.  (The Wiki* implies that Bernardino's relative prominence among saints owes something both to active advocacy by the Franciscan order and to his living late enough to have left a relatively robust cultural paper trail.)

A standard depiction of St. Bernardino, painter unknown.
Three mitres on the ground represent three bishoprics that
he turned down so as to continue his preaching.  The
likeness is consistent with other portraits of the saint.
Saint Bernardino will not be everyone's favorite saint.  His sermons inveighed against vice generally, but also gambling, the pursuit of luxury, and frivolity in general.  He invented the "bonfire of the vanities," at which his listeners were invited to throw invitations to vice -- cosmetics, fine clothing, mirrors, musical instruments, and art** -- into the flames.  He was staunchly anti-gambling, radically homophobic, and virulently anti-Semitic, and some writers imply that he was influential in solidifying these attitudes within the moral framework of late medieval Christianity.

Butler's Lives of the Saints reports in passing, in the offhand way that book often ends the story of a saint, that the holy man made many successful predictions, cured lepers, and on four occasions brought the dead to life.  I have a story that Bernardino's body bled after his death until two rival families agreed to end a feud, and another that says that, three or four weeks after he died, a lot of blood suddenly poured from his nose.  This latter, incidentally, is a strikingly unusual miracle: the incident would certainly mark a departure from the usual laws of nature, but it's a departure that does no obvious good and would provoke no real sense of awe, except perhaps among the coroners.

(I don't know about you, but ~I~ was certainly curious: the dogs are named, indirectly, for St. Bernard of Menthon. There are at least 24 saints named Bernard.)

Jacopo Bellini (1400–1470) -- Tournament non-participant.
(father of Gentile Bellini, currently 2-1 and between matches)

El Greco (1541-1614, although always seeming three centuries later)
Expected Tournament Debut August 17, 2013


*I generally don't look up the Wikipedia article on a Saint of the Month until I have completed my own article.  I am perhaps less interested in the actual lives of the saints than I am in the whole cultural-historical concept of "The Lives of the Saints."  

** Art consigned to flames at the vanity bonfires of St. Bernardino and those who took up his idea probably include some work of Botticelli, and almost certainly some Fra Bartolomeo.

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