8.4 Saint Bernardine and Franciscan Mysticism


St Francis and St Bernardine, as well as St Dominic and St Catherine of Siena, are the most eminent figures in a true spiritual revolution that swept through the medieval world, leaving a profound mark. The Mendicant Orders, which arose between the 12th and 13th centuries, were a response to the spiritual crisis afflicting Christianity. Religious life, which had previously been characterised by work in and around the monastery, took to the streets of the cities. The intention was to realise the evangelical ideal of imitating Christ through a life of penance, charitable deeds, and preaching the Gospel. They founded their churches just outside the city walls, in what were often the most impoverished neighbourhoods, with the aim of bringing the poorest segments of the population closer to the Christian faith. The very architectural structure of these buildings, usually consisting of a single large hall, was designed to accommodate as many of the faithful as possible, just as the absence of decorative elements reflected the ideal of poverty advocated by the friars.

The great charisma of St Francis, the allure of his choice of nullity from which he derived a joy greater than any wealth, immediately ensured him an exceptional following. However, different positions on the Franciscan Rule, particularly on the idea of poverty, had already arisen during the Saint’s lifetime. After his death in 1226, these differences immediately gave impetus to the development of a so-called ‘conventual’ branch, the guardian of the Franciscan heritage preserved in the convents and great basilicas, and a so-called ‘spiritual’ branch, more radical in its interpretation of the principle of poverty.

About two centuries later, during the 15th century, St Bernardine spurred the so-called ‘movimento dell’Osservanza’ (Observant movement) in response to the decline that the Franciscan Order was experiencing at the time. It was a movement of reform and restoration with the aim of bringing all the friars back to the primitive and more rigorous observance of the Rule, a return to the primordial ideal of St Francis: Regulam simpliciter in primaeva puritate observare (‘observe the rule simply in its original purity’).

Born in 1380 in Massa Marittima into the noble Sienese Albizzeschi family, Bernadine was orphaned at the age of six and educated in Siena by his aunt and cousin, Franciscan tertiaries. He studied under the best teachers, devoting himself above all to philosophy and law.

Pursuing his desire for religious life, he donned the Franciscan habit in 1402 in the Church of San Francesco in Siena and celebrated his first Mass there in 1404. At the age of forty, he entered the most intense phase of his preaching activity, which made him famous and led him to visit many cities in northern Italy. His sermons were greatly appreciated because they were clear and easily understood by all. He preached for forty-five consecutive days in Piazza del Campo in Siena in 1427, listened to by a large crowd of his fellow citizens, who had acclaimed him as their bishop three times. However, he refused the prestigious appointments offered to him (the bishoprics of Siena and Urbino and the vicariate general of the Observants) in order to continue to work among the poor and to spread the teachings of the Catholic Church through preaching.

Aware that he could not impose on the faithful the austere ideal of Franciscan Observance that inspired his work, he proposed observance of the ideals of balance, order, and harmony—the same values translated into painting about a century earlier by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the magnificent frescoes in Siena’s Palazzo Comunale, depicting the Allegoria e gli Effetti del Buono e del Cattivo Governo (Allegory of Good and Bad Government). During one of his sermons, making explicit reference to this masterpiece, Bernardine confessed that he had drawn inspiration from it to preach the idea of peace as the basis of social well-being. The Saint played a decisive role in the very renewal of predication through the introduction of the technique of the exemplum, that is, of ‘essempli grossi e palpabili’ (‘great and palpable examples’) inspired by history and, above all, by daily life, news events, and the customs of his contemporaries. By means of these examples, he succeeded in combining the doctrinal solidity of his sermons with the clarity and effectiveness of the form, translating the great truths of the Faith in a very personal language. At each sermon he would display for all to see a tablet with the monogram of the name of Jesus (JHS: Jesus Hominum Salvator, Jesus Saviour of Humankind) inside a radiant sun, an exhortation to love Christ that later became his iconographic symbol.

Bernardine also played a fundamental role in the field of economic thought; in the Trattato sui Contratti e sull’Usura (Treatise on Contracts and Usury), he addressed the issues of private property, trade, and the social problems of loans, interest, and usury, which he condemned outright. He thus created the conditions for the birth of the Monti di Pietà, solidarity-based, non-profit financial institutions, including the Sienese Monti di Pietà, which was established in 1472.

Bernadine died in May 1444 in the Convent of San Francesco in L’Aquila where he had been preaching, and just six years later, in 1450, he was proclaimed a saint by Pope Nicholas V.


An itinerary that winds its way through the places linked to the figure of St Bernardine cannot do other than start from the Convent and Basilica dell’Osservanza, the most important church outside the city walls. Going north-east from the historic centre of Siena along a road flanked by centuries-old plane trees, you come to what is known as Colle della Capriola, a place dominated by peace and silence, where Bernardine lived for several years, promoting the transformation of the primitive hermitage into a convent, not least because of the large number of conversions following his vigorous evangelical action. In 1474, thirty years after the death of St Bernardine, work began on the construction of the church, with the collaboration of two distinguished architects: Francesco di Giorgio Martini (who spent the last years of his life on the Capriola and was buried in the crypt here) and Giacomo Cozzarelli, who was responsible for the 16th-century additions. Over the centuries, the building underwent several extensions and transformations, until it was almost totally destroyed by bombings in 1944, during the Second World War; just five years later, the Basilica was rebuilt, faithfully following the original design and reusing the original materials wherever possible.

The external appearance is characterised by simple and harmonious forms: the brick façade is preceded by a portico covered by a sloping roof, while the upper part ends with a tympanum adorned with the radiant sun with the monogram of St Bernardine in the centre; the bell tower is a late 17th-century reconstruction.

The interior is striking for its measured elegance, responding to the Renaissance canons of order, harmony, and proportion. It has a single nave with four chapels on each side; the presbytery, which is higher than the nave, is covered by a dome.

In this sober setting, inspired by respect for Franciscan spirituality, are magnificent works of art from the Sienese and Florentine schools, all dating from between the 14th and 16th centuries. The common thread linking many of them is devotion to St Bernardine and the Franciscan saints.

In the third chapel on the right is a panel painting by Pietro di Giovanni d’Ambrogio depicting the great Sienese saint, a work that takes on particular importance since it was painted in 1444, the year of his death. The image, one of the very first representations of Bernardine in painting, can in fact be considered his true ‘likeness’ as it was executed by the painter on the basis of personal knowledge and memory, thereby becoming the archetype for all subsequent representations. The emaciated figure, dressed in a humble habit clasped at the waist, the face gaunt due to fasting, and the toothless mouth are the hallmarks of his iconography, together, of course, with the monogram of the name of Jesus within the radiant sun. At a time when Humanism placed man at the centre of the world, Bernardine reaffirmed the absolute primacy of Christ, the subordination of all things to Him and in view of Him. Emblematic in this regard is the inscription on the book he holds in his hand, taken from St Paul’s letter to the Colossians: ‘Turn your minds to things above, not to things on earth’ (Que sursum sunt sapite, non que super terram). The renown of his sanctity, which spread while Bernardine was still alive, and the extraordinary veneration of him explain the presence of the halo in the painting, a distinctive attribute of the saints, prior to Bernardine’s canonisation in 1450.

In the same chapel is a 15th-century panel painting attributed to Girolamo di Benvenuto depicting Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, patron saint of the Franciscan Order who lived in the 13th century. The daughter of King Andrew II of Hungary, she married at a very young age and was a devout wife. Widowed at the age of twenty with three children, she entered the Terz’Ordine Francescano (Franciscan Third Order), performing works of charity and dedicating her entire life to the poor and the sick. On the panel, she is depicted wearing the habit of a Franciscan tertiary and holding a bunch of roses on her lap, an allusion to the miracle of the bread. One day, as she was walking along the street with her apron full of bread for the poor, she met her husband who asked her what she was carrying; when she opened her apron, magnificent roses were revealed. A devotee in pilgrim’s attire is kneeling at the feet of the Saint, while not far away is a crown, the symbol of Elizabeth’s royal blood.

The founder of the Order, St Francis of Assisi, is depicted in the adjacent chapel, the second from the right, among the figures in the polychrome terracotta sculpture group of the Compianto su Cristo Morto (Lamentation over the Dead Christ), a 16th-century work attributed to Giovanni di Paolo Neri.

Two important Franciscan saints are also featured in the magnificent 15th-century glazed terracotta tondos by Andrea della Robbia, hanging on the sides of the entrance portal: St Bonaventure of Bagnoregio and St Louis of Toulouse. Bonaventure, shown in a benedictory pose and with a book in his hand, was a general of the Franciscan Order and a great theologian, author of the Legenda Maior, the official biography of St Francis, which he wrote in order to provide an authentic account of the Saint’s life. As a boy, Ludwig, son of Charles of Anjou, King of Naples, was taken prisoner by the King of Aragon, where he became acquainted with the Franciscans. Once he had regained his freedom, he decided to live his life according to the rules of Franciscan poverty, dedicating himself to the needy and the marginalised. The two roundels are the only survivors of the cycle of saints originally found in the canopies covering the nave, which were destroyed during the bombing of 1944 and replaced by reproductions made by the Sienese sculptors Giulio Corsini and Bruno Buracchini.

In the adjoining monastery, in addition to the re-creation of St Bernardine’s cell, important relics of the Saint are kept, the most important of which are undoubtedly the clothes that belonged to him: the light woollen cassock used on his travels, the thick grey woollen habit, the cloak in the form of a large cope, and the long stockings made of cloth. The precious reliquary containing them was made between 1454 and 1462, commissioned by the Sienese Consistory, while the angel holding the crosier and the angel with the two mitres, symbols of the two bishoprics of Ferrara and Urbino offered to and declined by Bernardine, are the result of two later interventions (1682 and 1725). At the top of the urn is the reliquary of the precordium powders, made in the form of a ciborium and surmounted by another small reliquary that holds the tooth, culminating with the symbol of the Franciscans: the arm of Christ crossed with the arm of St Francis, both with their hands showing the stigmata, and the cross in the background.


Another location dedicated to St Bernardine, this time within the city walls, is the Oratorio della Compagnia di San Bernardino (‘Oratory of the Company of St Bernardine’), now housing the Museo Diocesano d’Arte Sacra (‘Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art’). Overlooking Piazza San Francesco, next to the basilica of the same name, this brick building with a gabled profile was created to house the 13th-century Confraternity of Santa Maria and San Francesco, one of the many associations of lay faithful that arose in the Middle Ages for charitable purposes. The impact of St Bernardine, who often preached in the square in front of it, was such that his person became the new reference point for the confraternity and the building was named after him in the 15th century, following his canonisation. The connection to the Saint is immediately evident from the outside with the large sunburst-shaped disc bearing the monogram of Jesus Christ that adorns the upper part of the façade and is the main iconographic attribute of Bernardine.

As soon as you cross the threshold of the entrance, you enter the so-called Lower Oratory, a room that is entirely centred around the Saint: the ceiling features lunettes all around the perimeter, frescoed in the first half of the 17th century by various Sienese artists including Rutilio and Domenico Manetti, Ventura Salimbeni, and Bernardino Mei. The scenes depict salient episodes of his life, such as the Cura degli Appestati nello Spedale di Santa Maria della Scala (Care of the Plague Victims in the Spedale di Santa Maria della Scala), the ancient Sienese institution where pilgrims passing along the Via Francigena were accommodated, abandoned children were cared for, and the sick were cured. In 1400, before donning the Franciscan habit, Bernadine had indeed joined the Confraternita dei Disciplinati di Santa Maria (Brotherhood of the Disciplined of Saint Mary), committed to works of piety and assistance to the most needy. A severe plague epidemic struck the city that year and Bernardine did his utmost to care for the sick and comfort the souls of the dying, for whom he composed a prayer to be recited in honour of the Virgin Mary.

The room also houses an object that is particularly precious since it used to belong to the Saint: one of the famous tablets with the name of Jesus that he would display during his sermons to the faithful.

The Lower Oratory has a corresponding Upper Oratory on the first floor, an exceptionally magnificent room dedicated to Santa Maria degli Angeli (St Mary of the Angels). Here, great painters and skilled woodworkers created a homogeneous composition that stretches along the walls, where elegant candelabra pilasters and a frieze in wood and papier-mâché frame large scenes depicting episodes from the life of the Virgin. The frescoes, painted in the first quarter of the 16th century by Beccafumi, Il Sodoma, and Girolamo del Pacchia, begin with the birth of Mary and end with her Assumption and Coronation in Heaven.

In the rooms adjacent to this room is the Museum’s own collection of paintings and sculptures, placed here by the Sienese Church in 1999. Through this collection, which includes famous masterpieces such as Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Madonna del Latte (Nursing Madonna), it is possible to trace the development of Sienese art and faith from the Middle Ages to the 19th century.



A few steps from the Oratory is the imposing Basilica di San Francesco, built on the site of an earlier, smaller Franciscan church.

In 1212, St Francis made his first visit to Siena, at a time when the city was shaken by furious internal struggles and therefore in great need of the help of the Saint who, through his preaching, restored peace, to the great joy of the bishop. When Francis was proclaimed a saint in 1228, the Municipality of Siena expressed the desire to erect a church in his honour, which was completed in 1255 and was to be a rather small building, most likely with a rectangular plan, a reminder of the simplicity of early Franciscanism. In the meantime, after the Saint’s death, a community of Friars Minor settled in the city and, over the course of the following decades, gained such a large number of faithful that at a certain point the church proved too small to accommodate them all; thus, in 1326, work began on a new, larger church.

A little more than twenty years after the work started, the arrival of the terrible black plague of 1348 struck the city so profoundly that construction had to be interrupted. By that time, the apse and the chapels of the transept had presumably already been completed, which, as in every church, were the first elements to be built, together with the altar. The building site was active again in 1407, especially for the restoration work needed following the long period of neglect. It may be assumed that this new building fervour was sparked by the presence of St Bernardine, who lived there and undoubtedly dreamed of seeing the great church dedicated to St Francis, where Bernardine had celebrated his first mass in 1404, completed.

The structure was completed in 1475; however, a few years later, in 1482, the great Sienese architect, painter, and sculptor Francesco di Giorgio Martini was commissioned to raise the side walls to give greater proportionality to the complex; on that occasion, the artist also created the splendid central portal, which is now inside the church, to the left of the entrance.

The current building, although much altered over the centuries, still has the traditional layout of the typical churches of the mendicant orders: a huge, simple single hall, with no columns between the priest and the faithful, which could have distracted the latter from listening. The layout is in the form of an Egyptian cross, more simply called a T-shaped cross, characterised by a transept divided into chapels which bisects the church at the height of the apse. This particular shape recalls the Tau chosen by St Francis as the symbol of the cross of Jesus and which later became the identifying sign of the Order. Crossing the threshold of the Basilica therefore means standing at the foot of the cross and becoming part of the mystical body of Christ, which is the Church. Completely built of brick, the building is also the architectural translation of the message of the Mendicant Orders: not to amaze with ostentation, but to move people by word and example.

Along the walls of the nave, a series of metal structures recall the Baroque altars which, built after a terrible fire in the church in 1655, housed the paintings commissioned by the most prominent Sienese families. At the end of the 19th century, the Sienese architect Giuseppe Partini restored the Basilica to its full Gothic splendour and destroyed the altars. The 17th– and 18th-century paintings, no longer in keeping with the taste of the time, were transferred to the Galleria di Belle Arti (Fine Arts Museum) and then to the repositories of the Soprintendenza, where they remained until 1996, when some of them were returned to the church. The paintings in question were produced at the time of the Catholic Reformation, a time when the Church advocated the presence of images of saints in places of worship more strongly than in the past, to counter the Protestant Reformation’s criticism of their veneration. Among the many depicted are, of course, St Bernardine and St Francis, but also St Jerome, St Peter the Martyr, and local saints such as St Galgano.

The true masterpieces housed in the Basilica are the wall paintings created by the brothers Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti around the 1330s. These fragments are part of a cycle of frescoes conceived for the chapter house and cloister of the adjoining convent, detached from their original location and moved to the transept chapels inside the church in 1857. They depict a Crocifissione (Crucifixion) by Pietro as well as two scenes by his brother Ambrogio: San Ludovico di Tolosa che si congeda da Bonifacio VIII (St Louis of Toulouse taking Leave of Boniface VIII) and the episode of the Martirio dei Frati Francescani (Martyrdom of the Franciscan Friars).

The importance of the Basilica di San Francesco is also linked to the Eucharistic Miracle of the Sacred Particles, located in a chapel in the transept, which have been preserved uncorrupted for almost three centuries. In 1730, on the day before the Feast of the Assumption, the consecrated hosts, placed by the friars in a pyx, were stolen from the church. Found a few days later, they could no longer be used, so it was decided to let nature take its course and wait for them to deteriorate on their own. Since that time they have miraculously remained unchanged. Scientific examinations have been carried out over the years, most recently in 2014, and all have confirmed that they are intact, inexplicably free of microbial growth. In 1980, Blessed John Paul II, on a visit to Siena, contemplated the hosts and, standing before them, said: ‘It is the Presence’, thus affirming that in those small discs of unleavened bread the Eucharistic miracle of the presence of Christ’s body is manifested.


The first nucleus of the Franciscan settlement in Siena is located outside the city walls, in the Ravacciano district. Legend has it that in 1212, at the end of his first visit to Siena, St Francis set out on his journey; however, as darkness approached, he preferred to stop at the hermitage in the area. Before entering, he planted his staff in the ground. It sprouted overnight and by the next morning had become a holm oak. The news of the miracle spread immediately and the sacred tree became the object of such great devotion that a chapel, which is still known today as the Alberino, was built nearby. Centuries passed and, although the tree was protected by a fence, it was continually plundered by the faithful, who cut branches and leaves to take home as relics. Having been reduced to a stump, the Padre Provinciale (Provincial Father) of the Franciscan Order had it cut down in the early 17th century and placed under the high altar of the Church of San Francesco. A few years later, Prince Leopoldo de’ Medici, then governor of Siena, ordered the sculptor Domenico Arrighetti to carve a statue of the Assisian saint from the trunk; in 1639, the statue was carried in a solemn procession to the Church of Alberino, where it remains today.

The building is accessed by a long flight of steps leading to the small churchyard. The façade shows 19th-century renovations: the face is in brick, while the pilasters, portal, and tympanum are in travertine. The interior consists of a simple rectangular hall marked by the presence of pillars supporting segmental arches and ribbed vaults.

I Comuni di Terre di Siena