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Bernardino of Siena

Saint Bernardino of Siena, O.F.M.
Born (1380-09-08)8 September 1380
Massa Marittima, Italy
Died 20 May 1444(1444-05-20) (aged 63)
Aquila, Italy
Venerated in Roman Catholic Church
Canonized 24 May 1450, Rome, Papal States by Pope Nicholas V
Feast 20 May
Attributes Tablet with IHS; three mitres representing the bishoprics which he refused
Patronage Advertisers; advertising; Aquila, Italy; chest problems; Italy; Diocese of San Bernardino, California; gambling addicts; public relations personnel; public relations work; Bernalda, Italy

Saint Bernardino of Siena, O.F.M. (also known as Bernardine; 8 September 1380 – 20 May 1444) was an Italian priest, Franciscan missionary, and is a Catholic saint. He is known in the Roman Catholic Church as “the Apostle of Italy” for his efforts to revive the country's Catholic faith during the 15th century.[1] His preaching was frequently directed against gambling, witchcraft, sodomy and usury - particularly as practiced by Jews.


  • Sources 1
  • Life 2
    • Early life 2.1
    • Bernardino as preacher 2.2
      • Anti-semitic, misogynistic and homophobic discourse 2.2.1
    • Trial in Rome 2.3
    • Franciscan Vicar General 2.4
  • On Contracts and Usury 3
  • Canonisation and iconography 4
  • See also 5
  • Notes 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


Two hagiographical lives of Bernardino of Siena were written by two of his friends; the one the same year in which he died, by Barnaby of Sienna; the other by Maffei Veggio, soon after his death.[2]


Della confessione regole 12., 1494

Early life

Bernardino was born in 1380 to the noble Albizeschi family in Massa Marittima (Tuscany), a Sienese town of which his father, Tollo, was then governor. Left orphaned at six, he was raised by a pious aunt. In 1397, after a course of civil and canon law, he joined the Confraternity of Our Lady attached to the hospital of Santa Maria della Scala church. Three years later, when the plague visited Siena, he ministered to the plague-stricken, and, assisted by ten companions, took upon himself for four months entire charge of this hospital.[3] He escaped the plague but was so exhausted that a fever confined him for several months.[4] In 1403 he joined the Observant branch of the Order of Friars Minor (the Franciscan Order), with a strict observance of St. Francis' Rule. Bernardino was ordained a priest in 1404 and was commissioned as a preacher the next year.[5] About 1406 St. Vincent Ferrer, a Dominican friar and missionary, while preaching at Alessandria in the Piedmont region of Italy, allegedly foretold that his mantle should descend upon one who was then listening to him, and said that he would return to France and Spain, leaving to Bernardino the task of evangelizing the remaining peoples of Italy.[3]

Saint bernardin de sienne Langeais

Bernardino as preacher

The period of Bernardino's public engagement coincided with a time when the Catholic Church was responding actively (through civil and armed means) to pressures that it regarded as heretical, and which were gaining popularity in southern France and northern Italy, as well as to pressures of some reformed monastic orders. Instead of remaining cloistered and preaching only during the liturgy, Bernardino preached directly to the public.

For more than 30 years, Bernardino preached all over Italy and played a great part in the religious revival of the early fifteenth century. Although he had a weak and hoarse voice, he is said to have been one of the greatest preachers of his time.[4] His style was simple, familiar, and abounding in imagery. Cynthia Polecritti, in her biography of Bernardino, notes that the texts of his sermons “are acknowledged masterpieces of colloquial Italian.” He was an elegant and captivating preacher, and his use of popular imagery and creative language drew large crowds to hear his reflections. And, as Polecritti also notes, the subject matter of his sermons reveals much about the contemporary context of 15th-century Italy.[6]

He traveled from place to place, remaining nowhere more than a few weeks. These journeys were all made on foot. In the towns, the crowds assembled to hear him were at times so great that it became necessary to erect a pulpit on the market-place.[7] Like Vincent Ferrer, he usually preached at dawn. His hearers, so as to ensure themselves standing room, would arrive beforehand, many coming from far-distant villages. The sermons often lasted three or four hours. He was invited to Ferrara in 1424, where he preached against the excess of luxury and immodest apparel. In Bologna, he spoke out against gambling, much to the dissatisfaction of the card manufacturers and sellers. Returning to Siena in April 1425, he preached there for 50 consecutive days.[7] His success was claimed to be remarkable. "Bonfires of the Vanities" were held at his sermon sites,[3] where people threw mirrors, high-heeled shoes, perfumes, locks of false hair, cards, dice, chessmen, and other frivolities to be burned. Bernardino enjoined his listeners to abstain from blasphemy, indecent conversation, and games of hazard, and to observe feast days.[7]

Both while he was alive and after his death (the first edition of his works, for the most part elaborate sermons, was printed at Lyon in 1501), Bernardino's legacy was far from benign: of fanatical moralizing temperament, he preached fiery, intransigent sermons against many classes of people. His sermons were riddled with ostensible anti-Semitism, misogyny, and homophobia. He demonized many women as "witches", and called for homosexuals (or "sodomites" as he called them) to be either completely isolated from society or eliminated from the human community. He thus became a major exponent of what historian Robert Moore has called "the persecuting society" of late medieval Christian Europe.[8]

Anti-semitic, misogynistic and homophobic discourse

Bernardino is particularly regarded today as being a "major protagonist of Christian anti-semitism". He called for Jews to be isolated from the wider communities in which they lived; blaming the poverty of local Christians on Jewish usury. His audiences often used his words to reinforce actions against Jews, and his preaching left a legacy of resentment on the part of Jews.[9]

On sodomy (particularly homosexuality), he keenly pointed out the reputation of the Italians beyond their own borders.[10] He particularly decried Florentine lenience; in Verona, he approvingly reminded listeners that a man was quartered and his limbs hung from the city gates; in Genoa, men were regularly burned; and in Venice a sodomite had been tied to a column along with a barrel of pitch and brushwood and set to fire. He advised the people of Siena to do the same. In 1424 he dedicated three consecutive sermons in Florence to the subject, in the course of a Lenten sermon preached in Santa Croce, he admonished his hearers:

Whenever you hear sodomy mentioned, each and every one of you spit on the ground and clean your mouth out as well. If they don't want to change their ways by any other means, maybe they will change when they're made fools of. Spit hard! Maybe the water of your spit will extinguish their fire.[11]

In Siena he preached a full sermon against sodomy (including homosexuality) in 1425 and then 1427. Over time his teachings helped mould public sentiment and dispel indifference over controlling sodomy more vigorously. Everything unpredictable or calamitous in human experience he attributed to sodomy, including floods and the plague. As well as linking sodomy to local population decline[12]

Trial in Rome

StBernardine, Capella del Voto, Siena

Especially known for his devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus,previously associated with John of Vercelli and the Dominican order, Bernardino devised a symbol—IHS—the first three letters of the name of Jesus in Greek, in Gothic letters on a blazing sun. This was to displace the insignia of factions (for example, Guelphs and Ghibellines). The devotion spread, and the symbol began to appear in churches, homes and public buildings. Opponents thought it a dangerous innovation.[4] Nonetheless, Bernardino used the devotion to calm strife-torn cities, reconciling feuds and factionalism by his counsel and performing miracles.

In 1427 Bernardino was summoned to Rome to stand trial on charges of heresy himself for his promotion of this devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus. Theologians including Paulus Venetus gave their opinions. Bernardino was found innocent of heresy, and he impressed Pope Martin V sufficiently that Martin requested he preach in Rome. He thereupon preached every day for 80 days. Bernardino's zeal was such that he would prepare up to four drafts of a sermon before starting to speak. That same year, he was offered the bishopric of Siena, but declined in order to maintain his monastic and evangelical activities. In 1431, he toured Tuscany, Lombardy, Romagna, and Ancona before returning to Siena to prevent a war against Florence. Also in 1431, he declined the bishopric of Ferrara, and in 1435 he declined the bishopric of Urbino.[13]

John Capistran was his friend, and James of the Marches was his disciple during these years. Cardinals urged both Pope Martin V and Pope Eugene IV to condemn Bernardino, but both almost instantly acquitted him. A trial at the Council of Basel also ended with an acquittal. Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund sought Bernardino's counsel and intercession and Bernardino accompanied him to Rome in 1433 for his coronation.

Franciscan Vicar General

Soon thereafter, he withdrew again to Capriola to compose a further series of sermons. He resumed his missionary labours in 1436, but was forced to abandon them when he became vicar-general of the Observant branch of the Franciscans in Italy in 1438.

Bernardino had worked to grow the Observants from the outset of his religious life: although he was not in fact its founder ( - the origins of the Observants, or Zelanti, can be traced back to the middle of the fourteenth century.) Nevertheless, Bernardino became to the Observants what St. Bernard had been to the Cistercians, their principal support and indefatigable propagator. Instead of one hundred and thirty Friars constituting the Observance in Italy at Bernardino's reception into the order, it counted over four thousand shortly before his death. Bernardino also founded, or reformed, at least three hundred convents of Friars. Bernardine sent missionaries to different parts of Asia, and it was largely through his efforts that many ambassadors from different schismatical nations attended the Council of Florence in which we find the saint addressing the assembled Fathers in Greek.[3]

Being Vicar General inevitably cut back his opportunities to preach, but he continued to speak to the public when he could. Having in 1442 persuaded the pope to finally accept his resignation as vicar-general so that he might give himself more undividedly to preaching, Bernardino again resumed his missionary work. Despite a Papal Bull issued by Pope Eugene IV in 1443 which charged Bernardino to preach the indulgence for the Crusade against the Turks, there is no record of his having done so. In 1444, notwithstanding his increasing infirmities, Bernardino, desirous that there should be no part of Italy which had not heard his voice, set out to the Kingdom of Naples.

He died that year at L'Aquila, in the Abruzzi. According to tradition, his grave continued to leak blood until two factions of the city achieved reconciliation.

On Contracts and Usury

Bernardino was a great systematizer of Scholastic economics. His greatest contribution to economics was a discussion and defense of the entrepreneur. His book, On Contracts and Usury, dealt with the justification of private property, the ethics of trade, the determination of value and price, and the usury question.[13]

In January 1427 he was in Orvieto, where he preached on the topic of usury, urging the executive to take stringent steps against all such as were addicted to this business, of whom the majority were Jews. In Milan, he was visited by a merchant who urged him to inveigh strenuously against usury, only to find that his visitor was himself a prominent usurer, whose activities were prompted by a wish to lessen competition.[7]

Canonisation and iconography

An early painting of St Bernardino, c. 1444, by Pietro di Giovanni d'Ambrogio.

Reports of miracles attributed to Bernardino multiplied rapidly after his death, and Bernardino was canonized as a saint in 1450, only six years after his death, by Pope Nicholas V. His feast day in the Roman Catholic Church is on 20 May, the day of his death.

Bernardino lived into the early days of the print and was the subject of portraits in his lifetime, as well as a death-mask, which were copied to make prints, so that he is one of the earliest saints to have a fairly consistent appearance in art; though many Baroque images, such as that by El Greco, are idealized compared to the realistic ones made in the decades after his death.

After his death, the Franciscans promoted an iconographical program of diffusion of images of Bernardino, which was second only to that of the founder of the order. As such, he is one of the earliest saints whose appearance was given a distinct and readily recognisable iconography. Artists of the late medieval and Renaissance periods often represented him as small and emaciated,[14] with three mitres at his feet (representing the three bishoprics which he had rejected) and holding in his hand the IHS monogram with rays emanating from it (representing his devotion to the "Holy Name of Jesus"), which was his main attribute.[15] He appears to have been a favourite in the works Luca della Robbia, and one of the finest examples of Renaissance art includes relief carvings of the saint, which can be seen on the oratory of Perugia Cathedral.

A portrait is known to have circulated in Siena just after Bernardino's death which, on the basis of physiognomic similarities with his death mask at L'Aquila, is believed to have been a good likeness. It is thought probable that many subsequent depictions of the saint derive from this portrait.

The most famous depictions of Bernardino are found in the cycle of frescoes of his life, which were executed towards the end of the fifteenth century by Pinturicchio in the Bufalini Chapel of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, Rome. There is also an altar panel at the Alte Pinakothek in Berlin, done by Pietro Perugino, known as The Virgin appearing to St. Bernard. This shows the saint experiencing a vision of the Virgin Mary.

Saint Bernardino is the Roman Catholic patron saint of advertising, communications, compulsive gambling, respiratory problems, as well as any problems involving the chest area. He is the patron saint of Carpi (Italy); the Philippine barangay Kay-Anlog; the barangay Tuna in Cardona, Rizal; and the diocese of San Bernardino, California. Siena College, a Franciscan Catholic liberal arts college in New York state, was named after him and placed under his spiritual patronage.

His cult also spread to England at an early period, and was particularly promulgated by the Observant Friars, who first established themselves in the country in Greenwich, in 1482, not forty years after his death, but who were later suppressed.[14]

See also


  1. ^ "St. Bernardine of Siena,'Apostle of Italy'", Catholic News Agency
  2. ^ , Vol. V, by the Rev. Alban Butler, D. & J. Sadlier, & Company, 1864The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal SaintsButler, Rev. Alban,
  3. ^ a b c d Robinson, Paschal. "St. Bernardine of Siena." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 4 Feb. 2013
  4. ^ a b c , (revised by Pat McCloskey O.F.M.), Franciscan Media, ISBN 978-0-86716-887-7Saint of the Day, Lives, Lessons, and FeastFoley, O.F.M., Leonard, "St. Bernadine of Siena",
  5. ^ Cochrane, Eric, and Julius Kirshner. eds. Readings in Western Civilization: The Renaissance. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1986.
  6. ^ , Vol. 45, No. 10, May 18, 2011HNP Today NewsletterHoran OFM, Daniel, "The Complicated History of and the Popular Preaching of St. Bernardine of Siena",
  7. ^ a b c d , J.M.Dent & Co., London, 1906Saint Bernardine of SienaThureau-Dangin, Paul,
  8. ^ R. Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Power and Deviance in Western Europe, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987
  9. ^ Franco Mormando, The Preacher's Demons: Bernardino of Siena and the Social Underground of Early Renaissance Italy, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
  10. ^ For the most-recent, most-thorough scholarly discussion of Bernardino's campaign against sodomy, see Franco Mormando, The Preacher's Demons: Bernardino of Siena and the Social Underworld of Early Renaissance Italy (University of Chicago Press, 1999, Chapter Three, pages 109-163). In the same work is a detailed analysis of Bernardino's preaching against witchcraft and Jews. Mormando's book also contains the most current and correct data on Bernardino's career and influence on his society.
  11. ^ Louis Crompton, Homosexuality and civilisation, Harvard University, 2003
  12. ^ Michael Rocke, Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence"
  13. ^ a b , Vol.6, Number 2Religion & Liberty"St. Bernardino of Siena",
  14. ^ a b
  15. ^ Emily Michelson, "Bernardino of Siena Visualizes the Name of God," in: Speculum Sermonis: Interdisciplinary Reflections on the Medieval Sermon, ed. Georgiana Donavin, Cary J. Nederman, and Richard Utz (Turnhout: Brepols, 2004), pp. 157-79.


  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain
  • Polecritti, Cynthia, Preaching Peace in Renaissance Italy: San Bernardino of Siena and His Audience, (UC Berkeley, 1988)

External links

  • Saint Bernardino of Siena at the Christian Iconography web site.
  • Saint Bernardine of Siena, "Sermons"
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