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St Francis (4th October)

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Detail of a fresco (early 14th century) attributed to Simone Martini 
Cappella di San Martino, San Francesco, Assisi
An entry in the Roman Martyrology under 4th October reads: “ At Assisi in Umbria, the birthday of St Francis, cleric and confessor, founder of three orders: the Friars Minor, the Poor Clares, and the Brothers and Sisters of Penance.  His life, filled with holy deeds and miracles, were written by St Bonaventure”. 
Early Life of St Francis
St Francis was born in Assisi in ca. 1181.  He was probably christened in the earlier church of San Rufino, at the font that now stands in the right aisle of its successor.   The Chiesa Nuova stands on the presumed site of the house in which he grew up.  (The tradition that he was born in a stable that is now the Oratorio di San Francesco Piccolino can probably be discounted).  He attended school at San Giorgio.
After a carefree and perhaps misspent youth, St Francis underwent a process of conversion that began in 1202, when he was a prisoner of war at Perugia after the Battle of Collestrada.  He set out for southern Italy to fight for Pope Innocent III in 1204, but only reached Foligno.  A vision there persuaded him to return to Assisi and to begin the search for his vocation. 
In ca. 1205, St Francis had a vision before a crucifix at San Damiano that started to shape his vocation.  To his father’s dismay, he became an oblate (lay brother) at San Damiano, and this unleashed a series of events that culminated in his renunciation of his inheritance in ca. 1207.  His father brought charges against him before the Consuls (probably in Palazzo dei Consoli, near San Rufino).  However, in view of St Francis’ religious status, they remitted the matter to the episcopal authorities.  The trial (during which, St Francis famously undressed and gave his clothes to his father) was held before Bishop Guido I, probably outside Palazzo Vescovile. 
St Francis then lived for about two years as a hermit under the protection of Bishop Guido I.  During this period, he repaired a number of churches, including San Damiano and the Portiuncula.  
Franciscan Order 
The most complete source for the early days of the Franciscan Order is the so-called “Legend of the Three Companions”.  Initially, St Francis “wore the habit of a hermit: a staff in his hand, shoes on his feet and a leather belt around his waist”.  However, this changed after he heard a sermon at the Portiuncula in 1208 on the text from the Gospel of St Matthew, in which Christ sent the disciples out as evangelists: 
"Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff" (Matthew 10:9)”.  
In this detail from the so-called Bardi Dossal (13th century ) in Santa Croce, Florence, St Francis kneels on the right to remove his shoes in recognition of  his evangelical vocation. 

It was at this point that St Francis began to attract a following, among the first of whom was Brother Bernard of Quintavalle, who was troubled by what to do with his possessions.  The two men went to San Nicolò di Piazza, and opened the Bible three times at random in order to find the answer.  (The altar on which they consulted the Bible is now in the Cappella della Madonna del Pianto, San Rufino).  They alighted upon three texts in succession: 
“If you would be perfect, go and sell what you have and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven’ (Matthew 19:21); 
"Take nothing for your journey, neither staffs nor bag nor bread nor money; and do not have two tunics apiece"  (Luke 9:3)
"If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24).
St Francis was soon joined by Brothers Peter Catanii and Sylvester (described, along with Bernard of Quintavalle in the page on the early followers of St Francis) and Brother Giles (who has his own page as a saint of Perugia).   They settled at Rivotorto, from where they travelled to Rome in order to secure oral approval from Pope Innocent III for their way of life.   Innocent III also agreed that the brothers (who were almost all laymen at this point) might embrace poverty and  preach penance.  They returned to Rivotorto, but when a farmer stabled his donkey in their hovel there, St Francis arranged for their move to the Portiuncula. 
St Francis summarised these events in his Testament (see below): “And when the Lord gave me some brothers, no one showed me what I ought to do, but the Most High Himself revealed to me that I should live according to the form of the holy Gospel.  And I caused it to be written in few words and simply, and the Lord Pope confirmed it for me.  And those who came to take this life upon themselves gave to the poor all that they might have and they were content with one tunic ... with a cord and breeches, and we wished for no more”.
St Clare heard St Francis preach (perhaps at San Rufino) in ca. 1210 and became one of his followers.  Soon after, she secretly left home and joined St Francis and his brothers at the Portiuncula.  St Francis received St Clare into the religious life by cutting her hair and giving her a rough habit to replace her fine clothes.  Bishop Guido I agreed that St Clare and a few followers (including her sister, St Agnes) might live at San Damiano.
The Franciscan brotherhood expanded rapidly and in 1217 began its first (not particularly successful) phase of concerted international expansion.  The renewed missions to France and Spain in 1219 and Germany in 1221 were much more successful.  However, Francis' own mission of 1219-20 to the Saracens at Damietta during the Fifth Crusade produced little result; Sultan al-Kamil received him courteously but was not inclined to convert to Christianity.  He apparently refused St Francis' offer to submit to trial by fire. 

On his return to Italy, St Francis found a growing climate of disorder and discontent within the Order.  It was becoming clear that the Franciscans' itinerant lifestyle, sustained by manual labour and by begging, would have to be modified as the friars began to establish convents in the urban centres across Europe.  
St Francis seems to have resigned from administrative control of the Order in 1221, after having secured the services of Cardinal Ugolino (the future Pope Gregory IX) as Cardinal Protector.  He was thus free to devote himself to the controversial matter of formalising the Franciscan Rule in the light of the changed circumstances, which culminated in the the so-called “Regula Non-Bullata”.  This was presented to the so-called Chapter of Mats, which was held at the Portiuncula in 1221.  St Antony of Padua attended this meeting: this was his first experience of the mainstream of his new Order, and it must have been a difficult one since St Francis was severely incapacitated by ill-health, and since the contentious matter of the formulation of the Franciscan Rule was the central topic at the meeting.  
It became clear that a majority of the friars thought that the Rule written by St Francis needed substantial modification if it was to meet the friars’ practical needs.  He therefore retired to the hermitage on Fonte Colombo, near Rieti in search of divine inspiration.  Pope Honorius III finally approved the so-called Regula Bullata (the formal rule enshrined in a papal bull) in 1223, probably through the good offices of Cardinal Ugolino.  
Stigmatisation of St Francis
From the early days of his conversion, St Francis had been devoted to Christ Crucified.  In 1224, while in retreat on Mount La Verna in Tuscany, he became reconciled to the idea that he would have to emulate the suffering of Christ in order to secure his own salvation and that of the people who followed his prescribed way of life.  
Shortly afterwards, he had a vision of a seraph and, as he pondered on its meaning, he became aware that he bore the stigmata of Christ.  For the remaining two years of his life, he contrived to keep this miracle a secret from all but his closest companions.  The stigmata caused St Francis great pain, and his generally declining health and rapidly deteriorating eyesight added to his suffering. He probably became somewhat reclusive, although he was still able occasionally to continue his evangelical work (no longer able to walk and therefore resorting to the use of a donkey).
Death of St Francis 
In 1225, during the early stages of his final illness, St Francis made what he probably expected to be a last short visit to the sisters at San Damiano.  However, his condition suddenly deteriorated, and he spent a few weeks in their care: it was here that he wrote the ‘Canticle to Brother Sun’. 
St Francis was in Siena in 1226 having treatment for his eye condition when it became clear that he would soon die.  He was already regarded as a saint and the authorities of Assisi feared that the Perugians might steal his relics.  They therefore sent an armed guard to accompany him back to Assisi.  The soldiers kept guard while he lay ill in the Palazzo Vescovile and then accompanied him to the Portiuncula.   It was probably in these final days of his life that he wrote his Testament.
St Francis died in the infirmary there, and what is now the Cappella del Transito was later built on the site.  His death is described in the Vita Prima in fairly standard hagiographical terms, with his soul rising to heaven on a small white cloud.  However, there was an unprecedented aspect to these events: many of those who flocked to the Portiuncula “witnessed a new miracle” when they saw the stigmata on his body (see below). 

The authorities of Assisi insisted that St Francis should be buried close to the city, in the parish church of San Giorgio, where he had attended school as a child.   The brothers first carried his coffin to San Damiano and opened it in the apse, so that St Clare and her sisters could look through the grill from which they normally received “the sacrament of the Lord’s body”.  (This fresco from the upper church, in which the event takes place outside a lavishly decorated church, is clearly inaccurate).  

The procession then continued to San Giorgio, where St Francis’ body was “laid away”.  
Cure of the girl with a deformed neck, details from: 
         the Pescia Dossal (1235);           the Bardi Dossal (ca. 1245); and           the St Francis Dossal (ca. 1253) 
These dossals are discussed in the page on Art and the Cult of St Francis 

On “the very same day” as the funeral, a girl with a deformed neck put her head “beneath the coffin”, after which she could straighten her neck for the first time.  There is no mention that she or anyone else could see the body, and one must assume that the coffin was now closed and probably sealed.  In all of the depictions above, the coffin is a locked wooden chest on sturdy legs, under which people seeking to be cured could crawl, and it also served as an altar.  These images of the original coffin are sufficiently consistent to suggest an early prototype that reflected the actual situation.
Accounts of a number of other miracles that occurred at the tomb in San Giorgio were read out during the service of canonisation two years later.  In some of these, the afflicted person had been able to touch the tomb.   From the account of the canonisation in the Vita Prima , it seems that the tomb was in a crypt below the church, under an altar at which Mass could be celebrated.
Later miracles at the tomb of St Francis, details from: 
                                          the Pescia Dossal (1235); and                         the St Francis Dossal (ca. 1253) 
Both of these dossals are discussed in the page on Art and the Cult of St Francis  

The tomb/altar in the two illustrations to the left above could be the first wooden coffin, but if it is, it is now shorn of its legs and sits on the floor. 
The body of St Francis was not apparently embalmed:  the Vita Prima says that it was “anointed with heavenly ointments rather than with those found on earth”.  
Henri d’ Avranches says that St Francis was “honoured in a tomb of pure stone” at San Giorgio.  
The account in the Registrum Gregorii IX of the later translation of the relics to San Francesco (see below) says that they were contained in a wooden box and “because of its great weight, it was drawn by oxen”.  
Both of these sources suggest that, while they were still at San Giorgio, the relics were contained in the stone sarcophagus that was rediscovered in 1818 in what became the crypt of San Francesco.  This might well have already had the protective metal cage in which it was rediscovered, and seems to have been placed in a wooden box for the purposes of its translation.
Canonisation of St Francis 
When the Emperor Frederick II invaded the Papal States in 1228, Gregory IX fled from Rome.  He spent about two weeks in Assisi from 26th May, 1228 and then took up residence in Perugia, where he commissioned a consistory of cardinals to investigate the case for the canonisation of St Francis: although the sanctity of St Francis was already widely accepted, the accounts of the miracles that had occurred at his tomb needed verification.  He returned to Assisi in order to officiate at the canonisation at San Giorgio on 16th July 1228, and laid the foundation stone of San Francesco on the following day.  He published the bull of canonisation, “Mira circa nos” from Perugia on 19th July. 
It is clear that the canonisation had been anticipated even before the death of St Francis.  Nevertheless, is important to recognise how unusual it was to canonise someone so quickly after his or her death.  The only two important prior exceptions prove the rule: 
St Thomas Becket was canonised in 1173, just two years after his death; and 
St Bernard of Clairvaux, who had died 1153, was canonised in 1174.  
It is probably instructive to note that these canonisations both occurred during the conflict between Pope Alexander III and the Emperor Frederick I, and that now Gregory IX was embroiled in a war with the Frederick II.  
Thomas of Celano described the service of canonisation in the Vita Prima, in what seems to have been an eye witness account: "Pope Gregory first preaches to all the people … At the end of this speech … the subdeacon … Ottaviano … reads in a loud voice the miracles of the saint to the whole assembly.  … Then the blessed Pope … proclaims: 'To the praise and glory of God almighty … we decree that the most blessed father Francis … shall be enrolled in the catalogue of saints, and his feast is to be celebrated on the day of his death'. … The blessed Pope Gregory then comes down from the high throne and by the lower steps enters the sanctuary to offer prayers and sacrifices, and with his blessed lips kisses the tomb holding the sacred body dedicated to God.  He offers many prayers and celebrates the sacred mysteries”.  This scene from the Bardi Dossal depicts Gregory IX celebrating Mass at an altar that resembles the one depicted above over the tomb of St Francis.
Translation of the Relics to San Francesco
The lower church was sufficiently complete by 1230 for the translation of the relics to take place.  In the bull “Mirificans misericordia” (16th May 1230), Gregory IX granted indulgences for all those attending the ceremony, which was scheduled for 25th May in order to coincide with the General Chapter that was to be held at Assisi.  Gregory IX could not attend in person, because he was detained in Rome by peace negotiations with the Frederick II.  However, three cardinals represented him, and he sent a number of precious gifts.  
The ceremony is described in the Registrum Gregorii IX, and the first indication of the controversy that later surrounded it comes at the end of the account: “The citizens of Assisi wanted to be the principal actors in this spectacle by force of arms”, in order to ensure the safety of the “famous treasure” (i.e. the relics).   Gregory IX issued a furious bull (Speravimus hactenus) on 16th June, in which he complained that, despite everything that he had done for Assisi, its Podestà and its people had usurped the papal prerogative and taken control of the ceremony, despite the fact that “sacred things are reserved to sacred ministers”.  They had also prevented many of the friars from seeing and paying homage to the relics.  Gregory IX threatened the dire punishment of both the city and the Sacro Convento, which suggests that he distinguished between the friars there (the offenders) and those friars who had travelled to Assisi (among the offended).  Fortunately, he was soon placated, and the threatened punishments did not materialise, probably because the offenders were able to justify their actions.  
In fact, not all of the friars had been kept from venerating the relics: according to the Legenda Maior, Brother Giacomo di Jesi was “in the joyful celebrations of the translation”, and was to able to “approach the tomb in which the sacred bones were placed”  in San Franceso, where “he embraced the holy grave”.  He was thus miraculously cured of a rupture from which he had suffered since his youth (Miracles 8:2).
There was further disruption during the following General Chapter, when Brother Elias and his followers apparently tried to depose the Minister General, John Parenti by force.   According to the English friar, Thomas of Eccleston: “When the good Brother John saw this, he stripped himself before the whole chapter; and thus finally [the followers of Elias] were confounded and gave up after a very great disturbance .... The people, however, thought that the discord had arisen because the body of St Francis had been translated already on the third day before the fathers had convened”.  (He later adds that Brother Elias had arranged the early translation because he had been indignant that Brother John had revoked his decree that any friar who wished could travel to Assisi for the General Chapter).  This is the only source for the assertion made subsequently that the date of the translation was brought forward by three days: however, the Registrum Gregorii IX and the account of Julian of Speyer (who probably attended the ceremony) were both explicit that it had taken place, as planned, on 25th May.  
When the sarcophagus arrived at San Francesco (or at some time thereafter), it was lowered into a deep burial chamber in the rock under the crossing of the lower church.  It is clear that the high altar above this chamber was considered to be part of the shrine from at least 1253, the date of its consecration.   For example, a miracle in the Tractus de Miraculis, which dates to this period, relates how girl from Norcia was freed of demons as she “lay prone before the altar of St Francis” at Assisi during Mass on the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ.  This depiction of the miracle is from St Francis Dossal (ca. 1253).   
The limitations of San Francesco as a cult site, and the effect that this had on pilgrims’ experiences, are discussed in the  page on the lower church.  That experience changed dramatically after 1818, when the sarcophagus containing the relics was discovered in the rock some 4 meters below the high altar.  The  surrounding space was subsequently excavated to form the crypt of San Francesco, and the relics and sarcophagus were returned to the burial chamber in 1824.  Pilgrims could finally see the sarcophagus, although not the relics inside.  These were removed for preservation purposes and returned to the sarcophagus in 1978. 
Development of the Cult
Two aspects of the development of the cult of St Francis, respectively its development in written hagiography and in art, are treated in separate pages on this site.  This section treats other subjects that were important in determining how the cult developed.
Significance of the Stigmata 
As noted above, St Francis contrived to keep the miracle of his stigmatisation from all but his closest companions for the last two years of his life.  However, when he died, Brother Elias (whom Francis had appointed as his Vicar in 1221) sent an encyclical letter to the friars that mitigated the sad news with a description of the unprecedented miracle of his stigmatisation: “Not long before death our brother and father appeared crucified, bearing in his body the five wounds which are in truth the stigmata of Christ”.  
However, there was no mention of the stigmata in the bull of canonisation, and it seems that Gregory IX was not immediately convinced.  However, he changed his mind after St Francis appeared to him in a dream and showed him the wounds.  This must have occurred before 1230-4, when Gregory IX and a number of cardinals lauded the stigmatisation in additions that they made to the Franciscan liturgy.  In the bull “Confessor Domini gloriosus” (1237), Gregory IX affirmed that: "When [the stigmatisation] was brought to our notice ... and was solemnly proved together with his other miracles by witnesses most worthy of credibility, we had special reason for believing that … [St Francis] should be added to the catalogue of saints".
According to the Legenda Maior, the doubts of Gregory IX related to whether or not St Francis had really received a wound in his side.  The reason lies in the description of the Crucifixion in John 19:31-37:  "The Jews therefore, so that the bodies should not remain upon the cross on the sabbath day, besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away.  ... But when they came to Jesus, and saw that he was dead already, they did not break his legs: but one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side with a spear and at once blood and water came out ... These things were done, so that the Scripture should be fulfilled”.  The author of this passage was referring to three prophecies in the Old Testament that were believed to relate to the manner in which the Messiah would die: 
"He keepeth all his bones: not one of them is broken" (Psalms 34:20) 
"And they shall look upon him whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him ...” (Zechariah 12:10)
In the Vita Prima, Thomas of Celano relates how the friars saw the right side of the dead St Francis “red with blood”, and how this “made them remember One who poured out blood and water from His own side wound and reconciled the world to the Father”.   This aspect of the stigmatisation emphasised more than any other the degree to which St Francis had emulated Christ.  In the bull “Benigna operatio” (1255), in which he confirmed the validity of the stigmata of St Francis, Pope Alexander IV  was explicit that these included “a wound in his side, which was not inflicted or made by man   .... It was something like the side of our Saviour, which revealed in our Redeemer the mystery of the redemption and salvation of mankind. ... Let no-one attack this saint, who carried in his body the triumphant stigmata of Christ”.  
Relics of St Francis 
The bodily relics of St Francis were interred deep in the rock below the crossing of the lower church, where they could be venerated only from a distance.  The high altar above them served as a shrine, as described in the page on the lower church.  This lack of clear focus for the cult probably stimulated the use of art to stimulate a sense of direct interaction between the venerator and the venerated.  
Items that St Francis had touched did play the part of bodily relics, but only on a minor scale.  The objects that the friars of the Sacro Convento preserved as relics of St Francis, many of which are now exhibited in the Chapter Room, include
 his tunic; 
the felt slippers St Clare made for the stigmatised feet of St Francis; and 
two embroidered linen cloths that belonged to Lady Jacopa de' Settesoli, which were used to wipe the brow of  the dying St Francis.
A large corpus of the writings St Francis survives, but, with the exception of two documents discussed below, only in the form of later copies.  The earliest of these are contained in a compilation that was made in the Sacro Convento at some time in the 13th century (now in the communal archives).  The most important of these documents are: 
the Regula Bullata (1223), which, as noted above, derived from a form written by St Francis in 1221; 
the “Canticle to Brother Sun” (1225-6); and 
his Testament (1226).
Brother Leo owned two precious documents written by St Francis, the only examples of his handwriting that survive: 
                     St Francis’ blessing of Brother Leo                Letter from St Francis to Brother Leo 
                       Chapter Room, Sacro Convento                 Cappella delle Reliquie, Duomo, Spoleto
a blessing for Brother Leo that St Francis wrote after the stigmatisation, which Brother Leo subsequently annotated; and 
a letter that St Francis wrote to him some time thereafter, addressed to "Frate Pecorello di Dio" (brother little sheep of God), which ends memorably: “And if you need and want to come to me for the sake of your soul or for some consolation, Leo, come.” 
He also owned the breviary that St Francis shared with him and with Brother Angelo.  Again, he annotated it before entrusting it to Sister Benedetta, the Abbess of Santa Chiara.  (Since the earthquake of 1997, it has been kept at the Convento di Monteripido, Perugia).