Saint Bernardine of Siena: The Apostle of Italy

Saint Bernardine of Siena: The Apostle of Italy

On May 20, the Church celebrates the feast of Bernardino (Bernardine) of Siena (1380–1444), a Franciscan friar and celebrated preacher called "The Apostle of Italy.”

Learning the liberal arts and law

Bernardino was born on September 8, 1380, in the Tuscan town of Massa Marittima, where his father, a member of the noble Albizzeschi family of Siena, was governor. Orphaned by the age of 6, Bernardino was raised by two devout aunts; as a youth he received an excellent education in liberal arts and law.

Serving the sick at a hospital

In 1397, he joined the lay confraternity attached to the largest hospital in Siena. When, in 1400, a severe plague descended upon the city, Bernardine, with some companions, took charge of the hospital for several months. He then cared for an aunt in her last illness. A few years later, he joined the Franciscans of the new Observant reform in 1403.

St Bernardine of Siena hospital in Siena 700pxls 1Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala, Siena, where Bernardine served as a young layman

Preaching addressed pressing social issues

During his early years in the Order, Bernardine led a more contemplative life, reading widely in Scripture and earlier Franciscan thinkers. By the middle of the next decade, however, he turned more and more to popular preaching. He devoted himself to this ministry for thirty years, traveling through the cities and towns of northern and central Italy. His style was simple, direct, and full of captivating imagery, and he addressed pressing social issues.

St Bernardine of Siena preaching in campo in Siena 700x1200pxlsBernardine preaching in the campo of Siena, by Sano di Pietro (1445). Notice the separation of men and women in the audience.

Promoting the holy name of Jesus

One of these was the violent partisanship of Italian towns. People would carry about the emblems of their faction, and so Bernardine began holding up a plaque with the initials “I.H.S.,” an acronym for the name of JESUS, and had people place the emblem of the Holy Name over the entrances of their houses and businesses as a sign of peace and reconciliation.

St Bernardine of Siena IHS monogram 700pxlsWooden image of the Holy Name of Jesus monogram, carried by Bernardine during Lent in Prato, 1424

Seeking to achieve justice in society

Bernardine’s quest for achieving justice in society led him to tackle many burning issues of his day. For example, in an emerging capitalist economy, he defended the necessary role of business entrepreneurs but also developed the concept of a just wage.

St Bernardine of Siena campo in Siena 700 pxlsThe great town square, campo, in Siena, scene of many sermons preached by Bernardine

Demonizing certain groups in society

Unfortunately, Bernardine’s fiery temperament led him to demonize certain groups in society. For example, he strongly denounced moneylenders who were gouging the poor, but since that profession was dominated by Jews, he can be accused of anti-Semitism. His sermons also display misogynistic and homophobic attitudes. Those who have access to an academic library may wish to consult the detailed study by Franco Mormando: “The Preacher’s Demons: Bernardino of Siena and the Social Underworld of Early Renaissance Italy.”

Shaping the Franciscan movement

Besides the great impact he had on his society, Bernardine shaped the history of the Franciscan movement; he served as Vicar General of the Observant Reform and his huge popularity attracted many young men to join it. When he entered, there were only about 130 Observants in Italy; by the time of his death, there were over 4,000.

St Bernardine of Siena 3 miters 700x1200pxls CopySan Bernardino, Dario di Giovanni da Pordenone (c. 1470). The three miters symbolize the three dioceses for which Bernardine was nominated—Siena (1427), Ferrara (1431), and Urbino (1435)—but which he turned down (Los Angeles County Museum).

Influencing Franciscan women’s congregations

He also was influential in the reform of women’s Franciscan congregations. Bernardine remained active until the very end of his life. Despite growing ailments, he continued his preaching tours until his death in L’Aquila in Abruzzo in 1444. Bernardine’s vast popularity led to his canonization only six years after his death.

St Bernardine of Siena basilica holding his tomb 700x500pxlsThe basilica of St. Bernardino in L'Aquila contains his tomb.

Patron of advertisers and communicators

Because Bernardine lived in the early Renaissance with the beginnings of realistic portraiture, his image quickly became well-known. Although considered handsome in youth, he eventually lost most of his teeth, resulting in an emaciated appearance. Today Bernardine is considered the patron of people engaged in advertising and communications work as well as those struggling with an addiction to gambling.

St Bernardine of Siena glorification of St Bernardine 700pxlsGlorification of St. Bernardine, flanked by fellow Franciscan saints, Louis of Toulouse and Anthony of Padua. Pinturicchio, Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, Rome, c. 1485. Bernardino was the fourth Friar Minor to be canonized, after St Francis himself and the two others pictured here.

Learn more

See more detail on Bernardine’s life.

There is a very good article on Bernardine from the perspective of the history of art.

Read excerpts from one of Bernardine’s homilies on the Holy Name of Jesus.

St Bernardine of Siena death mask 700pxlsBernardine’s wax death mask (1444)

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Main image: St. Bernardine of Siena, by Jacopo Bellini, painted in the first years after his canonization (1450-55). Bellini had several opportunities to hear Bernardine preach in person (public domain).
Dominic Monti

Written by : Dominic Monti

Dominic V. Monti, OFM, is a Franciscan Friar of Holy Name Province (USA) and currently professor of Franciscan Research in the Franciscan Institute of St. Bonaventure University. A native of nearby Bradford, PA, he was educated at St. Bonaventure (BA); after joining the Order, he attended the Catholic University of America (STB), Union Theological Seminary, NY (STM), and the Divinity School of the University of Chicago (PhD). He devoted the greater part of his ministry to teaching the History of Christianity, in particular the history of the Franciscan movement. He has contributed two volumes to the Works of St. Bonaventure series and is author of Francis & His Brothers, a popular history of the Friars Minor. He is spiritual assistant to a federation of Poor Clares and the Franciscan Secular Institute, the Missionaries of the Kingship of Christ.