Summary Conclusion: St Francis, Stigmata, and Polemic in the Orthodox Church (Part 7)

Final Summary of All Posts

Because Francis’ sainthood has been the object of polemical attack by those Orthodox unversed in critical scholarship who yet feel that zeal for Orthodoxy should permit them to discuss in ways which not only work against the generosity of spirit encouraged by Paul in his admonition to speak only about what upbuilds, but which also tarnish the reputation of Orthodoxy as a repository of well conducted theology, I decided to post this series of essays. It was my hope that writing the series should help frame my desire to see a critical, rather than polemical, theology among the Orthodox, and a reinvestment in the richness of the Medieval, Pre-Tridentine tradition among Catholics.

I divided the series into six parts. The first situated the series in the context of a polemical article in a popular magazine intended for the Orthodox faithful (OCA-ROCOR specific). The second traced the earlier accounts of Francis’ life which have come down to us, in contrast to the article’s reliance on the quite late and vernacular Fioretti di San Franceso. To enquire whether the article’s argument about Francis’ visualisation techniques was valid, the third part looked at meditation techniques in the Latin church of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The fourth and fifth sections asked ‘why’, and tackled the meaning assigned by Francis’ contemporaries to Seraphim and Stigmata, respectively. The Sixth section, which I divided into two parts, looked at changing patterns of devotional forms in the Byzantine Commonwealth during the Comneni dynasty (1081 – 1204), with specific attention paid to Byzantine devotion to the Passion. The latter part of the same section noted the motivations and understanding of Passion devotion as presented by Latin writers during its heyday of development in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. I also briefly touched on Crusader sermons to illustrate the context in which Passion devotion played out in other spheres of life for Latin Christians. Several conclusions have emerged from the various themes covered in the series of posts, which I present below as I review the series as a whole.

Why were stigmata absent in Byzantium? Is something wrong with Byzantine spirituality that its saints do not have this mark? Or is the phenomenon of stigmata a sign of the deviance of the Latin church? Those questions drove this series of posts. Rather than approach the latter two questions head on, I proposed an ‘archaeology’ of Francis’ stigmata in its twelfth century context. I adopted the logic that miracles of holiness are identified by local communities, and I sought to ‘excavate’ why particular miracles, in this case stigmata, are understood as signs of Christ-like-ness. I augmented the question by comparing the international Latin experience with the situation in the Byzantine Commonwealth under the contemporary Comneni dynasty. The hope was that uncovering the medieval contexts of stigmata and the initial understandings of the phenomenon would prove the most helpful approach in illuminating possible approaches to the larger ecclesiastical concern of venerating saints from other denominations.

Related to the question of Francis’ stigmata is the issue of saint-identification and saint-repudiation, or as an academic might phrase it, ‘saint-making and unmaking’. This is the implicit theme of the first post, although i did not draw it out as such, my articulated concern being to frame the debate as a whole. Saint making is inherently political: that is, it involves position relations of power within and between communities and the individuals who populate those communities. These relations of power exist quite apart from whatever revelatory process of grace was provided by the saint in question during his or her life.

In the context of saint-making and saint-unmaking, the questions were: Why is it important for the OW author to debunk the idea of Francis’ sainthood? Why was Francis made a saint to begin with? Are either considerations, those which prompt the article’s author to debunk Francis sainthood, and those which prompted his canonisation in the thirteenth century, universally applicable? How does the history of local proclamation of saints in Byzantine commonwealth, and the papal decrees for universal veneration of a saint in the (particularly post-Reformation) Roman Catholic Church impact today the proclaiming as unholy those whom other ages and communities proclaimed holy? This last question is not new; it was raised before during the Three chapters controversy during the early medieval period.

As mentioned already, several conclusions emerged during the course of this series. First, devotion to the Eucharist, Passion, and Icons are inter-related, especially in Byzantium, but to a lesser extent also in the Latin Kingdoms. Second, due to the peculiarities of his life, Francis became for Latin theologians and laity a node in a network of medieval devotions, allowing the devotee’s mind to move from Francis to any number of other theological topics: the Cross, transformation in Christ, the Body of Christ, Eucharist, angels, the virtue of Love, and so on. A third conclusion which emerged was that although important for Latin theological speculation on cosmological themes, the Byzantine Commonwealth had other concerns at the time (e.g. residual iconoclasm; scepticism regarding the ability of real people to become saints; the efficacy of saintly intercession after the holy person’s death), concerns which Francis’ life, or specifically his stigmata, did not address. Although it is possible to marginally fit Francis into a Byzantine framework of devotional and meditative associations, it isn’t really necessary; Byzantine spirituality came to cultivate other emphases. On the other hand, the fourth conclusion is that because Francis did leave relics and his contemporaries do see him as having been transformed in Christ, his sainthood and holiness should not be disparaged simply on account of his life not being applicable to the theologico-political situation of an empire in which he did not spend much time. Saints are given to locales first, and only later to Christendom as a whole.

I noted at the end of the second post (‘Earlier Accounts’), the primary argument put forward in the Orthodox Word article, namely, that Francis’ stigmata are a result of delusion induced by excessive visualisation exercises, is invalid. The argument is invalid on academic grounds because (quite apart from the fact that the article did not answer the prompting question directly), the author relies on one of the latest sources, written for popular consumption, rather than on the earliest sources which have survived. The argument is invalid on ecclesiastical grounds in the sense that the sources used were not those promoted by the proper ecclesiastical authorities for the canonisation of Francis; that is, they do not reflect the mind of the Church authorities of the time (or today). Finally, the argument also fails on a theological level for a similar reason, that the source documents the author used were not those of theologians per se, but of popular devotion. The problem here is that the author did not draw out the ways in which popular accounts, or rather popular spirituality, also represents the mind or consensus of the faithful with regard to the spirituality of a time and place. As such, the Fioretti are indeed evidence of popular devotional ideas of the fourteenth century (or at least of one author in the fourteenth century), and as such could have been used to tentatively illustrate differences in devotional emphases between Byzantine authors and Italian authors of the time period in question — if the overall framing of those stories had been properly taken into account. When I have used examples of popular devotion to further my own argument, I have done so precisely to illustrate the popular context in which Francis lived, and not to illustrate Francis’ own biography and possible thought-processes. Popular works are too uncritical a source to be used with any such certainty about the life of an individual.

In both the second post (‘Earlier Accounts’) and the third post (‘Meditation techniques’), I noted that the earliest sources do not support an interpretation which claims Francis’ used various visualisation techniques, in contrast to the author’s claims. For the author, ‘visualisations’ are a technique viewed with disapproval, as particularly likely to lead to delusion. (The visualisations under discussion are those in the mind, as opposed to visualisations as externalised and objectified in written icons; icons are able to be viewed, critiqued, and assessed by relevant authorities for their theological orthodoxy.) I delved into the various meditation and contemplation practises which were described by Latin contemplative theologians in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. These sources do not indicate that visualisation techniques are to be habitually practised. (For more on meditation, though a touch later than my sources and treating a specific type, see McNamer (2010). Affective Meditation and the Invention of Medieval Compassion.) More to the point, the earlier accounts of Francis indicate that his vision occurred in a moment of contemplative stillness, rather than during the discursive meditations on how he could conform his life to Christ more fully. The vision did, however, provide material for Francis and others to meditate upon, namely, why a Seraph? why a Crucified man with the six-wings of a Seraph?

Bonaventure wrote that the stigmata were ‘Imprinted on Francis by God via the action of Seraph’. The action came from God, but was this Seraph real or false? (The implication being that demons can serve God’s will, too, as evidenced in the book of Job; was the Seraph a ‘devil in disguise’ is the question.) How could such a question, of concern to an Orthodox pastor, be ascertained? The question is part of a larger one: do angels appear to people who are potentially heretics? Can an ‘orthodox’ angel appear to heterodox Latins? In truth, the reality or falsity of the vision cannot be certainly determined by us today, in part because of the scepticism of the age when it comes to angels and visions, and in part because all we have to rely on for evidence are hagiographical documents, none of which even hints that the Seraph was a devil. (Writers do evince uncertainty about whether the vision was one of Christ or of a Serpah. Bonaventure seems to come down on the side of the vision having been of an angel.) Inasmuch as the biographers of Francis point to an increase in devotion and love, however, rather than a flagging of his devotion, the veracity of his vision is implicitly confirmed according to the evidence acceptable in both Latin and Byzantine assessments of holy, as opposed to unholy, visions. What can be determined today, and what I focused on instead, was the meaning a Seraph had for Francis’ contemporaries.

Although no biographical account of Francis indicates that the Seraph was the devil or a demon in disguise, hagiography regularly discusses demons disguised as angels who appear to friars in order to deceive them. (The Fioretti itself contains several such instances, had the author of the Orthodox Word article chosen to give signs that he had read through the work as a whole.) The evidence from Francis’ biographers would seem to mitigate against a demonic interpretation, as Francis’ love for God did not flag after the vision, despite his suffering — a suffering accepted by Francis and described by his hagiographers as the final aspect of Francis’ perfect imitation of Christ’s life.

It is bad form to introduce new data (as opposed to analytical theory) in a concluding section. Nonetheless, for readers still in doubt about eleventh and twelfth-century Byzantine assessments of demonic activity, I will refer readers to the Byzantine scholar Psellos’ work (titled in Latin), De Operatione Demonorum. In this work, his interlocutor describes several classes of demons, and the forms each are capable of taking; assuming form of Seraph seems not to be one of them. Byzantine beliefs of the time do not posit an ‘anti-hierarchy’ to Dionysios’ Celestial hierarchy. In fact, the Seraph which appeared to Francis was not only in keeping with the hierarchy presented by Dionysios the Aeropagite’s Celestial Hierarchy, namely, indicative of love of God, but the association of a Seraph with the Cross and Passion can be located in a Byzantine text, the Judas Cyriacus (Kyriakos) legend, which became popular throughout the Christian world from Spain to Armenia, and Britain to Egypt. Francis’ vision thus had the potential to be understood throughout those regions where the History of the finding of the True Cross was recounted.

In any event, the vision of a Seraph was full of meaning for Francis’ contemporaries, a meaning which would have been readily intelligible in Byzantium. If Dionysios’ Celestial hierarchy had been more central to theological concerns of the Palaiologan dynasty following the Latin occupation of 1204, perhaps notice of Francis’ vision would have been different. By that dynasty, however, theological concerns lay more with defending the reality of internal experience, namely through or by means of hesychasm, than with external cosmological realities. (Quite apart from any association the Byzantines made between Franciscan friars and the Venetian Republic which sacked Constantinople in 1204, or between the friars and papal interference in the life of Constantinopolitan patriarchate during the period of Latin occupation.)

If anything, theological meditation on Francis’ vision of a Seraph prompted subsequent Latin writers to move away from an earlier image of the ‘angelification’ of humans as they pursued divine contemplation. Instead, combined with the clear evidence of Francis’ imitation of Christ, the speculative and contemplative theologians began to posit a much more Christocentric vision of humanity, in which ‘Christified’ humans move among the spheres of the angelic harmony, in contrast to the angels who remain stationary within each sphere. (I would argue that both the ‘angelification’ and ‘Christification’ of humans are aspects in Latin theology of what in Greek is called theosis, or divinisation. The issue of theosis in Latin and Byzantine theology is a contentious one, and the development of such an argument must await another post.)

The stigmata presented a similar problem to the seraph, and in the fifth section, I pursued the question, ‘what was the meaning of stigmata for Francis’ contemporaries?’ In light of examples of ‘stigmatists’ before Francis, Francis’ stigmata were truly novel, both in form (bearing nails, unhealing) and method of reception (via a vision, not via self-infliction). When it comes to interpreting what stigmata mean, both before and after Francis’ lifetime, two chief themes presented themselves to Latin theologians. The first was that stigmata were evidence of participation in or imitation of Christ. The second, and ultimately more broadly influential, was the idea that the stigmata were physical evidence of a mystic’s transformation into the Beloved (the contemplatives’ goal).

In Francis’ case, the stigmata were in fact interpreted by Francis’ contemporaries as evidence both of his complete imitation of Christ, and attested to Francis’ actual transformation in Christ. (The actual devotional work called Imitatio Christi would not be written for another century and a half. The history of that devotion as such — from its origins before Francis’ time, through his particular articulation of such an imitation as a way of life, to Thomas á Kempis’ work — deserves a later examination.) The stigmata, in other words, were taken by Latin theologians as a very physical manifestation of theosis — specifically in this case the ‘Christification’ I mentioned earlier. This theosis was authenticated, according to the sources, by the relics left by Francis,and the continued transformation of his body after his death.

Are these two ideas, participation and transformation in Christ, good enough evidence for the orthodoxy of stigmata, if, indeed, one can ask if an unsought, spontaneously given miracle is ‘orthodox’? Or do they point to a more fundamental difference in what it means to be transfigured in Christ? The stigmata cannot be used to demonstrate Francis’ orthodoxy; on the other hand, his relics can be used in that way.

The transformation in Christ of Francis’ body continued after Francis’ death, inasmuch as his relics continued to transfigure in holiness, leaving behind pleasant fragrances and miracles. The idea that false relics, scented and miracle working, could be fabricated by demons is belied in Orthodox hagiographical literature. Never are demonically-created relics mentioned, though stories of falsely-believed-to-be holy people whose remains stank and putrefied, and repelled people, abound in both Byzantine and Latin accounts of post-mortem revelations about false saints. (Of course, just because a saint’s body decomposed does not mean that the bones could not be relics; Dostoevsky certainly takes up that idea in his Brothers Karamazov.)

Finally, I traced devotion to the Passion in both the Byzantine Commonwealth and in the Latin Kingdoms of East and West, in order to contextualise Francis’ stigmata even further. I operated on the notion that because Francis’ stigmata were associated with the Cross and Passion, those two symbols provided an overarching context for understanding how Francis ‘fit’ into the symbolic worlds present in Byzantium and Italy. I asked two questions, first, did Byzantium have a devotion to the Passion at all? Second, how did medieval Latin conceptions of Imitatio Chrsiti come to focus on the wounds of Christ, such that stigmata, rather than say, the light of Tabor or the Resurrection, come to function as the sign of transformation in (or into) Christ?

I traced changing Byzantine devotion to the Passion through the development of several icons, their association with the Eucharist, and the derivation of additional icons from image-bearing relics of the Passion contained in the Imperial Palace. I suggested that a focus on the Passion in both Latin and Byzantine devotions of the period was prompted by the renewed accessibility to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (whose Latin precincts ultimately became stewarded by Franciscan friars). While in Byzantium monastic changes to liturgical practice led to the focus of devotion resting on the Cross or the icon of the Man of Sorrows, rather than the Passion as an event, nevertheless, the eleventh and twelfth centuries saw a common interest in the humanity of the man who suffered on the Cross.

Instead of icons, in the Latin west, devotion to the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist was shifted to a more often than not ‘conceptual’ devotion to the wounds present in the body which shed the blood of the altar. Latin devotion to the Eucharist outside the liturgical epiclesis, including the monstrance processions of the feast of Corpus Christi (instituted in 1246), did undergo elaboration during the thirteenth century, though its roots perhaps lay in the earlier reforms of Gregory VII. Devotion to the wounds of Christ seems to have been the result of a confluence of commentaries on the Song of Songs as they met Eucharistic devotion, coming to focus conceptually on the visual source of the gift of love: the body on the Cross, and more specifically, the ‘wound of love’ (cf. Fulton2002:292-294).

Bynum’s article “Women mystics and Eucharistic Devotion in the Thirteenth Century”, which I used in the post on Stigmata, examined Latin devotion to the Body of Christ and the Eucharist, but did not treat the accessibility of Christ’s humanity to Byzantine Christians through the medium of icons — including most especially the ‘new’ icons emerging from the religious ferment of the two centuries preceding the Latin capture of Constantinople (i.e. the eleventh and twelfth centuries, from the reign of Constantine IX Monomachos through the Komnenian dynasty). Yet, according to Belting (1980)’s article on the icon of the Man of Sorrows, one of the newer icons developed during the Comnenian renaissance, the Threnos, appears to take its genesis from its association with the aër covering the Holy Gifts at the altar. In other words, in post-iconoclastic Byzantium devotion to the Eucharist (which was considered one of the few ‘true’ icons by the iconoclasts) is transferred to newly-written and emotive icons which, it can be argued, were more lay-accessible, particularly outside the specific liturgies into which they were embedded. (Belting (1990) in particular has traced the portrayal of the Passion events and the uses to which those portrayals were put in his The image and its public in the Middle Ages : form and function of early paintings of the Passion (German original: Das Bild und sein Publikum im Mittelalter).)

Thus in Byzantium the progression moves from the Eucharist and Cross to icons; from relics of the Passion, to icons of the relics of the Passion. The links between Eucharist, Passion, and Icon were reinforced by the association of the Image of Burial of Christ as already present on the aër covering the Eucharist. That image, however, assisted the creation of Icons of the Deposition and the Akra Tapeinosis funerary-like portrait for private devotion. The movement of devotional focus to icons occurred in a context which recognised sanctity through the creation of icons of the sanctified, an implicit result of holiness being the ‘Iconographisation’ of the believer. One might also frame the Byzantine devotion as one of transferring the holiness of the material Eucharist to the image which touches the gifts, and through the icon portraying what covers the ‘true’ icon of the Eucharist, to the believer. In contrast, Latin devotion had a paucity of immediate relics from Jerusalem (though this was eventually remedied by fifteenth century monarchs), and the ‘transferral’ of material holiness was obtained through imitation, rather than association. In the Latin kingdoms, the progression moves from Cross, Passion, and Eucharist back to the human Body of Christ on the Cross and present in the Eucharistic elements to a more immediate focus on the Blood of Christ received in the Eucharist. That movement is united with commentaries on the Song of Songs, tied to the Passion through the imagery of the ‘wound of love’ which transforms lover and beloved. The resulting practise leads to a conscious Imitatio Christi on the part of the believer and meditation on the embodiment of Christ’s body in the believer through participation in Christ’s acts of mercy, His sufferings, and his self-giving at the altar, made possible by the Crucifixion.


Analytical Possibilities: Francis within a Network

Lastly, I presented evidence from Crusader sermons in order to illustrate how Francis became so internationally popular among Latin Christians. The purpose of that section, in combination with the foregoing, was to illustrate my conclusion that Francis became a node uniting several devotions. Francis functioned for medieval theologians and the devout as an indexical tag, meditation on whose life can lead in numerous other directions: Cross, Eucharist, crusades, poverty and kenosis, imitation of Christ, Body of Christ, the angelic hierarchy, and so on. I showed how eucharistic spirituality, the spirituality of the cross and crusades, devotion to the wounds of Christ, and contemplation of virtues such as love and the celestial hierarchy all came together in Francis’ life, particularly through his vision on Mt Alverna. I reached that conclusion after examining popular devotions as they developed in Byzantium and the West.

I have mostly held off from analysing the presented evidence through explicitly theoretical (i.e. academic, sociological methods) perspectives. A few such theoretical lenses may help focus the processes surrounding Francis stigmata. The theoretical approach is not without utility to theological and ecclesial ends. Such utility is demonstrated when the approach opens new possibilities for understanding the faith of previous eras; when it raises new questions or complicates old questions about topics such as revelation from lived experiences of saints and hagiographers — hagiographers being the mediators between society and theology; and when it sheds light on ecclesial integration, both in its problematic aspects and in its more appreciative aspects, as when it deepens the spirituality of the faithful, even in the presence of difference. I intend only to sketch out possibilities here, rather than fully develop any one approach.

I have already mentioned a few theoretical approaches. First is an ‘archaeology’ of a phenomenon, which owes a certain amount to Foucault as a proponent of this method. Second is the idea of saint-making and -unmaking, for which Galatariotou’s monograph on St Neophytos is an eminent example. Embodiment is another theoretical term I’ve used a few times, but I would see it drawn into relation with concepts of contagion, in this case, contagion or transfer of holiness, rather than impurity. Finally, Lukacs’ idea of reification, particularly as that reification can bring a ‘thing’ into a network such that it becomes either highly connected or even an obligatory passing point, ideas developed in (actor-)network theory, seems pertinent.

Lukacs developed his idea of reification in the context of a Marxist critique of capitalism. Briefly, the idea is that one thing becomes separated from its original context and comes to have associations of its own derived from that context, although in and of itself, the item does not possess any such relationship. Although abstract ideas are capable of being ‘thingified’, money is the primary example which he uses to demonstrate the idea of reification. As paper bills, money has no relationship to anything, except perhaps artwork. However, money originates as a proxy for the relationship between employer and employee. It represents labour-hours. Those labour-hours become reified, or embodied as a material ‘thing’ in the material object of money. The next step occurs when money then becomes an actant on its own, whereas before, it was the recipient of an action. For Lukacs, reification is the embodying of social relations into a material object which comes to replace or stand for social relations, but in a way which obscures those relations. (See his ‘History and Class Consciousness’ for more on this idea. He has an interesting idea of orthodoxy as residing in faithfulness to developing methods laid out by the founders of a field, which might be interesting to pursue in the context of what it means to be Orthodox.)

I would suggest that the twelfth century was a period when Latin and Byzantine theologians developed two slightly different methods of reifiying relations between human and divine. For the Byzantine commonwealth, the item which comes to reify this relationship is the icon, and secondarily relics (although the Eucharist is a close runner up); in a way, even icons of relics are efficacious, maintaining their relationship to the prototype’s relationship to the original. While it can be argued icons derive their power from the intercessory capabilities of their prototypes, nevertheless, the material object which comes to function in that intercessory capacity is the icon, egg tempera written on gesso and wood. In some cases, icons of the cross appear to have supplanted the actual cross as intercessory object, in an icondoule effort to root out iconoclastic groups still dubious of the orthodoxy of icons. If the cross is efficacious on its own, why not an image of the cross? If an image of the cross, then also the image of the body on the Cross, or the body which hung on the cross.

The choice of externalised iconographic expression for devotion to the Passion, rather than embodiment (even in metaphor) within the devotee’s body in suffering, is one key to the differences which emerged between Latin and Byzantine approaches to devotion to the events surrounding Christ’s death. Why icons became the vehicle of reification, or even better, how icons came to be viewed as bodies capable of embodying a relationship with the divine (rather than the human person him or herself), is a process which the literature surrounding iconography sometimes touches on, but not in such theoretical terminology, and certainly not in the wider context of historical Byzantine experience. Is the key to bringing the reification to the icon rather than the human found in devotional literature? How do ideas about stillness and the divine light touch on the human body which experiences such phenomenon? How is that embodied experience phrased and framed in an iconographic context, if at all? Did the reification occur in response to opposition by the intellectual elite of the time, their mocking of miracles and appearances of the holy man (as a type)? (See Belting 2005, “Image, Medium, Body: A New Approach to Iconology”, Critical Inquiry, 31:2:302-319, for more on the idea of icons as material objects which embody relations. I may develop this idea more fully in a later post, under the category of STS and Theology.)

In the Latin kingdoms, in contrast, the eucharist and bodily imitation are reified as the relationship between the devotee and the divine; or, in the case of Francis, his stigmata, a physical sign, becomes the ‘thingification’ of Francis’ ‘perfect’ imitation of Christ for Christians of his time. In a sense, the idea of Francis becomes ‘thingified’, and as such becomes capable of drawing together a series of relationships which extend beyond the confines of his own lived social relations. To take that approach, I am treating Francis as an object of popular devotion, rather than as a person with a popular following. How Francis, or Francis’ stigmata, fit into such networks of devotion has been articulated through even the cursory examinations of medieval angelogy, art history, Passion devotion, Eucharistic piety (at least one story in the Fioretti bears that later association out) and the crusader spirituality of the Holy Cross set out in this series of posts.

Francis was situated socially in the context of Crusades, with a nimbus of a new chivalric ideal promoted by Troubadours, but not without the fervor of missionary zeal. Francis becomes associated through his own travels and through his order’s responsibilities with the Holy Land and Latin pilgrimage there. By the latter half of the Middle Ages, Francis becomes a node in a nexus of devotions, linking several disparate strands of spirituality and sociality into an internationalised symbolic figure of the perfect, or near perfect, Christian: masculine, soldierly (or brave) yet eschewing worldly honour, of consummate devotion to his lady (Poverty), physically transformed by Love, having a place in the Angelic hierarchy, linked to the Holy Sites of Outre-Mer, honoured by infidels, the founder of a powerful order of intellectuals, and reformer of the Church who was yet never a priest. This is a far cry from the animal-loving, ecology-appreciating saint we often see today.

Francis comes to be the node on a nexus uniting medieval devotion to Angels, the Cross and Passion (especially as evidenced through devotion to the Five Wounds of Christ), the Lamb of God (and its associations with Judgement, Revelation, and Sacrifice), and the name of Jesus. He embodies the idea of transformation in God, and imitation of Christ; his creation of the Nativity scene links him with Mary and the Nativity; his Poverty with the Gospel counsels, Troubadour songs about devotion to one’s lady, as well as the theological idea of the kenosis of the Word; and finally, ecclesial approval by the patriarchate of which he was a member. As such, Francis remains a potent theological focus. All the mentioned devotions are unified, for our imitation, in the person-symbol of the stigmata-bearing saint, Francis. Imitation of him is imitation of transformation in God. As already mentioned, Francis seems to be the catalyst for one articulated strand in Latin theology of approaching to the Byzantine idea of theosis, though through a practical, rather than theoretical exposition. In imitating Francis, devout remain devoted to these other aspects of Medieval spirituality.

The Call of Orthodoxy

Much of the Catholic-bashing which occurs in zealous Orthodox polemic seems to originate in an opposition to the ecumenical movement. If ecumenical endeavours are to be opposed, I would argue that such opposition must be well-founded on good scholarship, not based on over-zealous, over-ambitious and ultimately shallow polemic. Such polemic does more to foster a dismissal of one’s own claims and arguments than it does to prevent the ecumenical process from moving forward. The ecumenical process will move forward precisely because zeal is deemed ignorance rather than informed faithfulness to the Fathers. In so doing, not only will the intention of opposing ecumenism fail, but the opportunity to present the ‘ecumenicists’ with the Patristic and orthodox inheritance as interpreted, preserved, and lived in the Orthodox Commonwealth will be missed.

Without an understanding of both Latin and Byzantine theology, as well as the historical contexts which formed them, any pre-conceived response to questions about Latin practices will serve merely to entrench the Orthodox in xenophobic and narrow-minded stagnation, rather than move us towards a deepening awareness of the possibilities of our own tradition for deepening and elaboration.

For the Orthodox, I would see higher standards of scholarship even in a popular magazine, or at least an effort to move the faithful to the heart of the matter, and take the argument forward from mere Latin-bashing. Following a programmatic ‘we hold the one true interpretation, and they are wrong and deluded’ agenda will only work in certain social contexts — and we live in a rapidly changing society. Latin Catholics, though, must also step up their own background in how the (Latin) Church has had a very beautifully textured past, and cannot not simply to be divided into essentialised categories of ‘Pre’ and ‘Post’ Vatican II practice.

Educating the faithful, whether Roman Catholic or Byzantine Orthodox, by pointing out that not all questions have been answered (or need to be answered), that there is more to our tradition than any one of us can answer for them, and encouraging the faithful to educate themselves through critical scholarship and personal engagement with primary sources, is a pastoral responsibility. Letting an increasingly savvy laity know that one’s own simple (or even complex) answers should not necessarily be enough to satisfy them is key to igniting that thirst for God of which the Psalmist, and Symeon the New Theologian, speak. Simply because an articulation of the Christian faith occurred after the arbitrary date of 1054, and west of Serbia and Kiev, that articulation should not be irrationally considered as a valid reason for ignoring insights into Christian revelation evidenced by the lives of Christians practising in good faith. Unfortunately more frequent among some Orthodox is an a priori rejection of such persons altogether in order to maintain a schism whose importance has only recently become seemingly the sine qua non of certain ‘Orthodox’ identities.

If a critique of Francis is desired, a good critical and well researched account of Francis, as opposed to a superficial and polemical one, is The Poverty of Riches by Kenneth Baxter Wolf. That monograph, written by a historian, examines how Francis’ poverty was qualitatively different from that of other poor people in Italy at the time. The epitome of his argument is that unlike the urban poor around him, Francis was able to maintain his ties with the merchant and aristocratic classes from which he originally hailed. He was thus not ‘resource poor’ or ‘network weak’, to use current terminology. Wolf also discusses other devout people of Francis’ ilk working in Italy at the time, and addresses possible reasons why Francis, in contrast to them, reached the (posthumous) international popularity — as a person — that he did, while they remained at best locally remembered. Wolf thus begins to address how the intersection of popular and elite theological perspectives in the person of Francis came about.

The question among the Orthodox of how to interpret Francis’ stigmata, and the ongoing phenomenon of stigmatists in the Latin church, though, does open up larger questions regarding how the character of spirituality, and differences in spirituality between the Orthodox and Catholics, and even within Orthodoxy over time, can be examined. What meaning should be imputed to those changes, if, indeed, they are even admitted to exist? Spirituality need not remain static over time to be considered faithful to its forebears. Nor is such stasis when it does occur automatic evidence of Orthodoxy (much less holiness), and faithfulness to the Patristic and apostolic sources of our faith. Emphases, outward forms, and community understandings shift over time; they unfold deepening awareness of the revelation which sustains the Christian faith, as manifested in particular locales. Just as the Church Fathers wrote, and their works were copied, because they developed an articulation of the tradition they inherited through confronting and thinking through questions, with the goal of vetting what is conformable to the tradition and what is not consonant with it, so also have lay practices and understandings of sainthood for their communities.

Raising people up to the faith includes teaching them how to think critically and methodically about questions concerning differences in various Christian spiritualities. It does not mean feeding them pre-digested bits of impermeable boundary making. The Orthodox can point to national (and thus by definition ultimately temporal) characteristics in various saints and spiritualities: the giants of Egyptian monasticism are said to reflect the blazing sun of the desert and Nile; the eloquence of the Greek Fathers shows forth the acumen of Byzantine genius; while the poetic and devout lives of Russian hermits are washed in the watercolour hues of the birch and pine forests of their homeland. All are celebrated as being ‘Orthodox’ despite the clearly evident changes in emphasis and expression — because what is emphasised in these accounts is the continuity, rather than the disjunctions, shared by them and other Orthodox saints. I am not denying the tenet of continuity, but I am pointing out the ideology of continuity conceals the contradictions of time and place, change in form and expression throughout history, while attempting to highlight the presence of change among Latin Christians while exempting ourselves from any critical view of the same in Orthodoxy. This contradiction, or better, paradox of continuity despite outward change, deserves greater theological articulation, precisely because it can be misunderstood or scandalous to the faithful, as well as to outsiders.

The purpose of hagiography parallels icon creation. Hagiography and iconography both teach, and inspire a relationship between the devout and the prototype. Both hagiography and iconography, as examples of popular devotions, illustrate the symbolic universes which inform (lay) people’s understandings of holiness and the marks of being a ‘true’, or at least exemplary, Christian. Hagiography both shapes and responds to this understanding. Like iconography, by its communal nature, hagiography promotes some interests over others. One interest is the preservation of, and integration with, the memory of a larger chain of historical tradition. As Thomas of Celano wrote, Francis is an exemplar of the Christian life, but not one divorced from those who came before him: “And indeed the glorious life of this man sheds clearer light on the perfection of earlier saints..”


The second purpose of this series was to demonstrate why stigmata would not be understood in Byzantium. The conclusion I reached was simple: in Byzantium, devotion to the Passion took a different direction, becoming bound up with icons; other forms came under suspicion from heterodox use of the Mandylion’s festal Kanon; and perhaps because of heightened visibility among Catholics (or comparatively lessened visibility among Byzantines), passion devotion may also have become a political identity marker in the wake of Venetian and Papal interference in the political life of the Capital after 1204.

The question of whether the meaning of stigmata for the thirteenth century Latin church is an orthodox meaning, as understood today, would demand a foray into how much an ‘economic’ interpretation of the course of Christian history can be embraced. That foray stands quite apart from any discussion on how new events tied to spirituality can be evaluated as ‘acceptable’ or ‘heterodox’. By ‘economic’, I mean how much divergence from the usual course of events can be acceptably deemed as within the will of the Holy Spirit to teach the Christian faithful and create situations which elevate the people towards the divine life. In the case of Francis’ body, however, the leaving behind of relics would seem to mitigate against a push away from an economic interpretation of Francis’ sainthood. The reality of relics certainly trumps discussions over the meaning of stigmata, and in Orthodox fashion, should direct the argument’s course accordingly.

In and of themselves, the impression of the Five Wounds on Francis are not antithetical to Byzantine sensibilities, however unique at the time they were. Had Francis lived out his life in Byzantine lands one could speculate that the stigmata may well have been described by hagiographers as evidence that Francis was a living icon (of the Threnos-type, rather than the Man of Sorrows type). That approach might cause problems, though, implying that obtaining stigmata was the sure sign of theosis, or at the least, calling into question the position of the emperor as an Alter Christus. Lest one think that such devotion became alien to Byzantine spirituality, I would refer readers to the seventeenth century St Dmitry of Rostov’s prayers to the Passion (Bednarsky 1996: Tuptalo’s verses on Lord’s Passion.

One aspect of the larger tradition, a point of common genesis and possible starting point for rapprochement between Byzantine objects and Latin understandings of the account of Francis’ reception of the stigmata can be found in a common devotion to the Cross. (I insist on relating Francis’ stigmata to devotion to the Holy Cross because that is the context in which Francis appears iconographically most frequently in the century following his death: in frescoes adorning churches of the Holy Cross, Crusader chapels, and oratories devoted to Francis.) The empire in the East and the kingdoms of the West shared a common inheritance of devotion to the Cross, to the Last Supper, and to the events of Holy Week. Werner 1990 describes a history of the cult of the true cross in both Byzantine Empire and Latin kingdoms, with a special focus on insular British devotion to the material cross and its image. She notes that both Roman Pope Leo and Alexandrian Pope Cyril ‘understood devotion to the cross as devotion to the material object’.

While the idea of the feast day of the cross is fairly old, it was not particularly widespread. Angold (1995:186) mentions that the feast of the Elevation of the Cross was not celebrated in Thessaloniki until Eustathios’ episcopacy, in other words, not until after 1178 and before 1195. Eustathios was initially bishop of Myra, and perhaps devotion to the Cross was stronger in Asia Minor, where iconoclasts had strongholds (although iconoclasts seem to have been more centred in Anatolia). The time period of Eustathios’ introduction of the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross does, however, correspond to the changes in Byzantine devotional patterns, with their refocusing on the Passion.

The particular narrative of Francis’ reception of the stigmata shares elements in common with the Judas Kyriakos (Cyriacos) legend of the Invention of the Cross. How the life of that legend as it circulated throughout the Mediterranean and Northern Europe prompted devotion to the Cross as such, but also, in Byzantium, to the Man of Sorrows icon in particular (as distinct from the Bridegroom/ Nymphios or Ecce Homo icon), has already been told. Likewise with its impact in the Latin West, where devotion turned towards not just the Cross, but focused more intensely on the body of that man of sorrows who hung upon the Cross. In the legend, a Seraph is said to guard the Tree of Life, which is identified with the Cross. I would speculate that the Seraph which guards the tree of life in the Judas Kyriakos legend, when paired with Francis’ vision of the Seraph of the Passion, elaborates on the character of that particular angel. This is particularly the case if — and the early writers do not agree — Francis’ vision was of an angel, and not of Christ. The devotional situation of Francis’ stigmata can thus be set within Byzantine and Latin devotions centred on the Cross, the Man of Sorrows icon, the Wounds of Christ, and the seraph within the Judas Kyriakos account.

Later Stigmatists

The subsidiary question of later stigmatists cannot be addressed here. While it was the question which prompted the Orthodox Word article, my purpose is to examine that article’s focus on Francis. Frankly, Catholic theology has not integrated into any wide theology-cosmology the phenomenon of spontaneous stigmatism present in individuals who have lived subsequent to Francis’ life. Francis remains unique in that regard. On the other hand, no other stigmatist has been able to secure associations with as many other devotions and social models present in his or her age and succeeding generations, as Francis of Assisi did. The problem is compounded because the Church — or rather, the Franciscan lobby — forbade all later stigmatists, aside from Francis, from being portrayed with stigmata. (Padre Pio (1887 – 1968) and Teresa neumann are exceptions, as they lived during a time when they could be photographed, rather than painted or written into an icon.)

The way, or rather timing, stigmata have appeared in other individuals differs from Francis’ case as well. Francis’ stigmata were the crowning event of a long life; Padre Pio’s stigmata occurred in midlife. Catherine of Siena’s stigmata became visible only after her death, while Gertrude’s appeared only on her heart. What about stigmatists during the intervening seven centuries, among whom were Teresa Neumann and Padre Pio? What are the implications of such changes in manner of appearance, timing in the life of the stigmatist, and other manifestations related to the stigmata? How are they — stigmata and stigmatist — interpreted in the Latin context? While it would seem reasonable to assume these later stigmatists fall easily into a developed structure of interpretation in which the stigmata are evidence of transformation into Christ through love; I would caution against such wholesale assumptions. The religious climate of each stigmatist is likely to have been quite different from Francis , or even Gertrude of Helfta and Catherine of Siena. Stigmatists in wake of Francis, in other words, need a new, or at least augmented, cosmological framework. Something for Catholics to ponder over.

Latin Devotion to the Passion: Francis, Stigmata, and Polemic (Part 6b)

Passion Devotion in the Latin Kingdoms

What are the origins of the Latin devotion to the Passion? This is a qualitatively different question that what I asked regarding the Byzantine Commonwealth. There, the question was about the presence of any Passion devotions whatsoever. I argued from the iconographic and liturgical record that yes, Byzantium did have a devotion to the Passion, but that it took a different form, focusing on the Burial of Christ, although it maintained Eucharistic overtones. Likewise, its theological importance lay in its association with relics of the Passion which bore images attesting to the Incarnation. I did not examine in any detail texts from the kanons, akathists, or other liturgically-oriented writings on the topic (I hope to rectify that at some point in the future). In this section, however, because my focus is on the understanding and interpretations Latins themselves gave to devotion to the Passion, I will draw not so much on the artistic heritage of the West, but on its textual sources.

The best source of information on the development of devotion to the Passion in the West is provided by Fulton (2002)’s magisterial work, From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary 800 -1200. Here, I will rely on only a few examples drawn from her monograph (which I highly recommend). Hrabanus Maurus (d. 856), provides an early recommendation for using devotion to the Passion as a way to open up the heart. His advice is taken up by John of Fecamp (d. 1079) in a small book given to the dowager empress of the Holy Roman Empire. This little book concerns contemplation, and details how meditation on the Passion, or specifically, on the Body of Christ, is the beginning of that path.

The twelfth century sees a new set of highly influential writers, among whom are Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109), Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153), and Richard of St Victor (d. 1173). Anselm is important for a series of prayer-meditations in which Christ is portrayed as the Bridegroom of the soul. That theme is taken up by Bernard in his Commentaries on the Song of Songs, which open with a meditation on the Incarnation as the kiss, or union of two lips, at the start of the Scriptural canticle. Because Bernard’s work is rather long (and because my copies are stored in a box 3000 miles away), I will not examine any texts from him. Rather, I only wish to point out that his commentaries helped popularise the notion of an intimate, even romantic relationship between the soul and Christ. Richard we have had reason to mention before; he will receive only brief mention, in the context of the Song of Songs. Hildegard of Bingen (d. 1179) would be a useful counterpoint if I wishes to provide an example highlighting the types of devotion which preceded the thirteenth century. My purpose, however, is to look at devotees’ understandings of what it means to meditate on the wounds and Passion of Christ. Therefore, I will not delve into her works here.

Three related groups of Old English texts, Ancrene Wisse, the Wooing Group, and the Katherine Group, however, do illustrate the shifts happening in Latin-rite devotion to the Cross and Passion in the years leading up to the thirteenth century. The subject matter of the texts combines imagery of the crucifixion with that of Christ as a bridegroom, bringing together Bernard’s mystical communion with Christ and the very real imagery of the Royal Cross. All three groups were written in the West Midlands dialect of English presumably for an audience of anchoresses (female hermits and recluses who lived in cells near churches and shrines), and in terms of composition date, seem to span the 12th and 13th centuries. Some of these anonymous prayers may have been part of an oral tradition and later written down. They may have been written by the women themselves, though one historian who focuses on the texts, Dr Innes-Parker, suggests they may have been written by a man. Regardless, “the intended audience for these prayers were anchoresses,” who had no access to education or libraries. These prayers were therefore written to provide them with their own devotional material. Nor could they speak Latin, which is why these prayers were written in English. They were the first passion meditation prayers written in English, and will serve as the most northerly examples of Passion devotion I will dip into in this post.

When it comes to devotion to the blood and wounds of Christ as that devotion developed on the Continent (and ultimately came to rest in devotion to the Sacred Heart), three women in particular are often mentioned. Mechtilde of Magdeburg, Mechtilde of Hackeborn, and Gertrude of Helfta, are associated with the High Medieval devotion, not just to the Passion in general, but to the blood and wounds of Christ specifically. (Relics of the Blood shed at the Crucifixion were some of the few relics which could be easily disseminated in the West, while Constantinople held the majority of other material remains associated with the passion.) These three women all lived in the Holy Roman Empire, and are associated with the Cistercian monastery of Helfta. Mechtilde of Magdeburg was born around 1207 (coincidental with the composition of the Wooing of Our Lord), and is thus also contemporaneous with Francis. Her writings attest to the currents of devotion present north of the Alps during Francis’ lifetime; as a Dominican sister, she was not especially invested the Franciscan project of promoting the founder of the ‘rival’ order — but she gives ample evidence of devotion to the Passion.

Mechtilde of Hackeborn (d. 1298) and Gertrude (d. 1302) post-date Francis, and both were contemporaries of Magdeburg after she entered the convent at Helfta. Gertrude was the most famous ‘student’ of Hackeborn, but the two are often mentioned together. Gertrude and Hackeborn were Cistercians, and therefore also not associated with the mendicant movement which developed in response to the new opportunities for pastoral care afforded by urbanisation. As Cistercians, they were part of a contemplative reform movement predating the mendicants, but closely associated through Bernard of Clairvaux with the Crusader kingdoms and the ‘taking up of the Cross’. (Cistercian architectural elements could be seen in the chapels of Crusader castles, of which Krak de Chevalier had until recently been the most well preserved.) The evidence provided by Magdeburg and Gertrude can thus be of use in elucidating the way Francis’ stigmata would be understood in the wider Latin Christian world around his lifetime. These women illustrate how devotion to the Passion was intimately wrapped up with a Eucharistic spirituality which was nonetheless contextualised within the convent’s discourse of women vowed to Christ as their Bridegroom.

Finally, the Cross and the courage in taking it up are themes widely preached in Crusader recruitment sermons to a broader, secular and lay public. The ways in which the Cross and Wounds of Christ are used in such sermons also sheds light on wide societal associations into which Francis easily fit, as a saint who preached to the Sultan, whose order was given custody of the Holy sites around Jerusalem, and as a human whose body bore evidence of taking up the Cross in a hyper-literal, though miraculous sense.

Elite Theologies: Passion as Preparation for Contemplation

Devotion to the Passion was not a sadistic glorying in pain and suffering for Latin Christians. Rather, they took seriously the admonitions of Paul, who to turn the Cross from stumbling block to corner stone of faith. Meditation on the Passion, as the means by which salvation was achieved, according to the Letter of the Hebrews, became for these Christians the first step in communion with the Divine. Fulton (2002:154) quotes a significant passage from Hrabanus Maurus, who comments on the Passion as the entry point for devotion to Christ in his Opusculum de passione Domini,

“If you wish to enter into life through Jesus, who is the way and the door… do not let it deter you, nor seem to you vile, if you find the approach to him everywhere troublesome and base. He has thorns on his head, nails in his hands and feet, a spear in his side, whip-marks on his arms; his body is torn to pieces, and like a leper he is ugly to look upon and hard to follow. But beware lest you throw away the nut on account of the bitterness of the shell: for the more bitter the outside may seem, so much the sweeter you will find the kernel inside. So that therefore you may be able to comprehend in some measure… the length, breadth, height, and depth of the mystery of the holy cross and the Lord’s passion, which God has hidden from the wise and knowing of the world and revealed to the little ones, understand the weight of the words… because, with God’s help, they will prepare the soul to have devotion in prayer, consolation in trouble, and revelation in contemplation; and you will know not only what has been given to us by God, but also the one who was given for us… even if you simply meditate on these things according to the letter.”

Hrabanus recommends the Passion precisely because it is an object of compassion or aversion. He promises that meditation on the Passion will lead to sweet fruit in the measure that the bitterness of Christ’s sufferings contain. Even if the person meditating focuses just on the literal events portrayed in the Gospel narratives, and not on the mystagogical interpretations handed down by the tradition of faith, Hrabanus says, benefit will accrue to the soul.

Hrabanus was not alone in composing a ‘little work’ (opusculum) on the Passion. John of Fécamp, who served as abbot of a monastery in Dijon in mid-eleventh century, at the request of the Holy Roman dowager empress Agnes, sent a small book of prayers to her. The empress by this time had entered the convent, and her request was for devotional reading for her new vocation in life. John’s Libellus was the response. It was copied, together with some of Anselm’s prayers into MS Metz 245, creating a thematically unified collection of prayers relating to the Passion (Fulton 2002:155). Fécamp, it should be noted, was a monastic school, founded by John’s own abbot, who had been called there by Richard II of Normandy. Earlier in life, John had made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where he had been held prisoner. How that pilgrimage affected his devotion to the Passion would make an interesting study itself.

Like HrabanusMaurus, John of Fécamp discusses meditation on the Passion in the context of prayer: “The contemplative ascent begins… as John has insisted throughout the Libellus, with Christ’s own body – or rather, his wounds, those ‘saving wounds which you suffered on the cross for our salvation and from which flowed the precious blood of our redemption.’ By these wounds, John implores Christ, ‘wound this sinful soul of mine for which you were willing even to die; wound it with the fiery and powerful dart of your charity that is beyond compare… pierce my heart, then, with the dart of your love, so that my soul may say, “I have been wounded by your love” [Song of Songs 2:5]…'” (Fulton 2002:169)

The excerpt just quoted is from John’s fourth prayer in his Libellus, which actually focuses on contemplation of Christ’s resurrection. For John of Fecamp, participation in Christ’s resurrection begins with Christ’s passion. Participation in Christ’s passion begins with the wound or wounds of love, which are here explicitly tied to the love of Bride and Bridegroom in the Song of Songs.

The association between Christ and the soul becomes even more concrete in another passage, in which John identifies Christ’s flesh with our own. This incarnational mystical theology contrasts with Peter Damian’s “conviction that it was necessary to bear with Christ not only his humanity but also the very wounds he suffered in taking on that humanity” (Fulton 2002:159-160).

John, in contemplating the Incarnation as God’s assuming human substance, writes, “And in this humanity is founded all my hope and all my trust. For in Jesus Christ our Lord resides a part of each of us, our flesh and blood. But where part of me reigns, there I believe that I too reign. And where my flesh is glorified, I recognize that I too am glorified. Where my blood rules, I see that I too rule. Although I am a sinner, i do not lose hope because there exits this grace-given communion. And if my sins bar the way, my substance requires that I be there. My sins may exclude me, but my communion in nature does not force me away. For the Lord is not so cruel as to forget humanity and not remember the creature whom he himself assumed, or not to want me for its sake after accepting it for my sake.” Far from being a statement of presumption on his part, it expresses a hope founded on theological faith in the incarnation. Yet it is also an expression of identification with Christ through the Word’s assumption of human nature. We as humans, can participate with Christ in his human experience, which includes a post-Resurrection glory.

Another figure, who, like John of Fecamp, was active during the ‘Norman renaissance’ of theological letters, was Anselm. Originally from Italy, he later settled at the monastery of Bec before being called to become Archbishop of Canterbury. Giles Gasper (2004:53) has suggested that John of Fecamp and Anselm of Canterbury mutually influenced one another, both coming from Norman monasteries located a mere 50 miles apart. (Gasper (2004). Anselm of Canterbury and his Theological Inheritance. Ashgate Publishing.)

Like John of Fecamp, Anselm composed meditative prayers which have been preserved, giving us an insight not only into his particular devotional themes, but also his approach to prayer. In his ‘meditation on the redemption of humanity’, Anselm recommends that it be read aloud, “…said from the depths of the heart and at a slow pace… give them your whole attention, and … do it was well as you are able, so that with humility of mind and the feeling of fear and love the sacrifice of prayer may be offered” (Fulton 2002:171). Key to making lectio divina into meditatio is attentiveness, at least for Anselm. One way to do that is to focus on one clear idea, and slowly work it over in the mind, ‘chewing it’, as Anselm describes. Fulton (2002:189f), in fact, argues that what is new in Anselm is “one of condensation and distillation: Anselm took elements available in the tradition — the image of meditation as rumination, as a slow chewing over of ideas within the stomach of the mind; the injunction, so clearly articulated by Hrabanus, to gaze upon the face of the Redeemer so as to kindle fire in the heart and understanding in the mind; the practice of private, confessional prayer to Christ and the plea, so richly articulated in the long prayer translated above (“Domine Iesu Christe, qui in hunc mundum”), that Christ hear the sinner and forgive all his or her many negligences and sins — and refined and enriched them in the alembic of his reasoned approach to the Christian faith… Above all, he transmuted the fear of Judgement, heightened as it had been for a generation or more by the passing of the millennial anniversaries of Christ’s Nativity and Passion, into an obligation to meditate on the immensity of Christ’s sacrifice.” Anselm, in other words, simply deepened the emphasis of devotions already at hand by imbuing them with an accessible mystagogy, and the methods for entering into that noetic contemplation.

The result, however, was that later Christians “would learn to think of their relationship to Christ in terms of an obligation to praise not simply the God-man but the man who had died in payment for their sins.” By focusing on the enormity of Christ’s sacrifice as achieved through his human nature, the reality of that humanity came to the fore. As Anselm later lamented, “Alas for me, that I was not able to see the Lord of Angels humbled to converse with men, when God, the one insulted, willed to die that the sinner might live. Alas that I did not deserve to be amazed in the presence of a love marvellous and beyond our grasp” (Fulton 2002:144). Anselm recognises in the crucifixion not simply human suffering, but the presence and will of Love, a love which transcends his ability to fully understand. As such, he recognises, but stands outside that love, contemplating it, rather than as in John of Fecamp’s prayerbook, identifying with it, or as in later writers, entering into it — at least in this particular lament.

Because Anselm recognises the love inherent in the act of submitting to the Crucifixion, the humanity of Christ for him is clearly not irreconcilable with a betrothal to one’s soul. In fact, one could draw the logical conclusion from his writings that in that act of supreme love was Christ’s betrothal of himself to the souls of humanity; the tomb, thus truly becomes a bridal chamber, which he enters and lies in wait for the soul of his beloved to join him, that later they may rise together in glory. But Anselm doesn’t quite carry out the imagery through the full triduum, at least not immediately. In the aforementioned prayer-mediation on the redemption of humanity (Meditatio Redemptionis Humanae), Anselm address Christ as Bridegroom in the following words: “I thirst for you, I hunger for you, I desire you, I sigh for you, I covet you… O that I might see the joy that I desire! O that ‘I might be satisfied with the appearing of your glory’ [Psalm 16.15] for which I hunger! O that I might be inebriated ‘with the riches of your house for which I sigh! O that I might drink of ‘the torrent of your pleasures’ [Psalm 35.9] for which I thirst! Lord, meanwhile, let ‘my tears be my meat day and night’ [Psalm 41.4], until they say to me, ‘Behold your God,’ until I hear, ‘Soul, behold your bridegroom'” (Fulton 2002:188). The imagery of Christ as Bridegroom was taken seriously by both male and female writers of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and formed one aspect of the mysticism which flourished within and outside the monasteries of the period.

The Chivalrous Christ and the Wounds of Love

Perhaps the most influential preacher of the period was Bernard of Clairvaux. Often called ‘the Last of the Fathers’, he is credited with invigorating the nascent Cistercian reform of the Benedictine order. He preached for a Crusade, advised popes, and wrote extensive commentaries, sermons, and homilies. His commentaries on the Song of Songs, in addition to his work ‘On Loving God’ (De Diligendo Deo or De Amore) are considered to have been a contributing factor to the rise of the troubadour ideal of courtly love. Certainly, to them is attributed the rise of popular devotion to Christ as Lover. In concert with Richard of St Victor’s description of the ‘wound of love’ (Songs 2:4), devotion to the Song of Songs meets with Eucharistic devotion to focus conceptually on the visual source of the gift of love: the body of Christ on the Cross (see Winkworth 1993:138n28 for Richard of St Victor). More specifically, contemplatives begin to contemplate the meaning of the ‘wound of love’.

Commentary on Song of Songs in the Latin church focused on a quest for narration, though not without also searching for personalised experience (more exemplified by LeClerq than Bernard). “Latin interpretation of Song of Songs strives for narrative: the primary objective of breaking the [allegorical] code was to turn the text into a narrative plot.” The narrative plot, naturally enough, cast Christ in the role of Solomon or Bridegroom, and the soul in the role of Bride. This quest for narrative is not unlike the prosopographic exercises in late Antqiue Byzantium which gave rise to types of hymns like the Stavrotheotokia used in the liturgies of Holy Week. (Cf. Symeon’s Hymn to Eros for a Byzantine divine lover image; also his Ethical Discourses cast Christ as Emperor taking his (male) favourite to bed.)

Among the most enthusiastic supporters of this sort of interpretation in the thirteenth century were groups of lay women called Beguines (lay men who gathered in similar associations were called Beghards). As an example of the sort of emotive devotion characteristic of Beguine spirituality, flowing out of the Latin narrative interpretation of Songs, Bowie (Beguine Spirituality 1989:55:(I.4) provides a typical prayer: ‘Lord, you are my lover, my longing, my flowing stream, my sun, and I am your reflection.’ The key theme here, aside from a heavenly beloved, is of reflection: the Beguine devotee’s goal is to reflect the love and virtue of Christ, imitating in her own life the love Christ offered in his own.

Devotion to Christ comes to supersede fealty to Christ as the motivating force of the Christian life, for those who followed the more mystical paths laid out by the authors I mentioned above. The shift can be seen in a set of Anglo-Saxon devotional poems and prayers as one moves form the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries. Beer (1992, Women and Mystical experience in the Middle Ages) juxtaposes a particular prayer-poem in the Katherine group with an older Anglo-Saxon poem, the Dream of the Rood, and links it to a chain which fully flowers in later Beguine spirituality. (Cf. The wohunge of ure Lauerd. Olde English poems.) Beer argues the Katherine poem illustrates the shift from an earlier conception in the Dream of the Rood of the nun as a martial warrior owing fealty to her Lord (as also in Hildegard of Bingen’s works), to the values of being a courtly lover, with Christ as a chivalrous knight as well as bridegroom. In part, this reflects an overall shift in literary topoi during the period in question, as the Res Gestorum of an earlier age give way to the Romances of the High Middle Ages. Likewise, Dr. Catherine Innes-Parker, a professor at UPEI, comments on her newly edited Middle English-Modern English edition of the Wooing Group, a group of texts related to the Katherine group. Dr Innes-Parker describes the Wooing Group as “a 13th century collection of prayers written in English for women. It turns Christ into a figure from romance—the Christ Knight, the ideal bridegroom” ( …For additional academic resources see: The Milieu and Context of the Wooing Group. Edited by Susannah M. Chewning Distributed for University of Wales Press.).

The two positions of martial fealty and courtly love, of course, are not as antithetical as it may seem: the societal shift may have been from a warrior ethos to a chivalric ethos, but the principle difference was the latter’s incorporation of courtly ideals and devotion to love into the pre-existing warrior ethos of glory, honour, and fealty to a feudal lord. Nevertheless, in the Katherine Group of texts, particularly in its later works, Christ is loved “for who he is, and what he has done [more] than for what he has to offer” (Beer 1992:75). In one particular poem, The Wooing of Our Lord (The wohunge of ure Lauerd), “the woman does not have to be convinced to choose Christ [as in earlier works in the Katherine group]: she fully recognises his desirability, and addresses him as his committed lover. Her sensitivity [is] to the degree of sacrifice made for her…” (Beer 1992:75).

As Innes-Parker elaborates, “These prayers refer to a romantic, even erotic meditation based on the Song of Songs. They are deeply rooted in the image of Christ as the bridegroom of the soul.” The commentaries and narrative-interpretation of the Songs, as we mentioned above, cast Christ as the bridegroom and the soul as his bride. Th Song of Songs is thus a scriptural account of Christ wooing the soul. “These poems were written to be read aloud,” says Innes-Parker. “The speaker had to look on the passion of Christ with the eyes of her soul and ask herself why her heart wasn’t breaking. Christ showed great love on the cross, and the response from these women was impassioned love.”

Beer (1992:67) also highlights that “a powerful element in the Wooing is the intense pathos surrounding the image of the Crucified Christ, the aching compassion expressed by a woman for the agony of her lover” (Beer 1992:77). The lover, of course, is the Bridegroom of the soul, Christ; and although the tomb in which he will be placed is not described as a bridal chamber — later prayers would ask Christ to hide the devotee in his wounds — as it is in the Byzantine liturgy, the focus of the poem is an interactive dialogue, not a monologue. (One wonders if the ‘pathos’ expressed in the poem is part of a general female experience of husbands and brothers as they left for Crusades, or when they heard that their men were wounded in battle? I would like to see if any female (secular) narratives attesting to such a relationship have survived, or is the poem a case of romanticising — in the sense of reading Romances and Courtly love onto everyday experience?)
In these groups of texts, we have a focus which moves from the Cross to the person on the Cross, who is loved as a Bridegroom who sacrifices himself out of love for his bride, personalised in the individual anchoress. Focus then moves from the incarnate man on the Cross to the actual wounds he suffered, and the motivating factor which led him to accept such marks: love.

The Wound of Love: Transformation of Lover and Beloved

Imagery of Christ as lover continued on the Continent during the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Two strands of devotion, to the Eucharist and to the Crucified Bridegroom, are tied together in a vision recorded by Mechtilde of Magdeburg. In Mechtilde of Magdeburg’s Second Book, she describes a vision of transubstantiation, in which an image of a white lamb with red wounds wavers back and forth with the image of a white wafer: “As he [John the Baptist/ the priest] took the white wafer in his hands, the Lamb which was on the altar stood up and was changed into the wafer and the wafer into the Lamb, so that I saw the wafer no more but instead a bleeding lamb which hung on a red cross. He looked on us with such sweet eyes that never can I forget it. … John the Baptist took the white lamb with the red wounds and laid it on the mouth of the maid. Thus the pure lamb laid itself on its own image in the stall of her body and sucked her heart with its tender lips” (Beer 1992:86). In this vision, the Eucharist is the Crucified but Living Christ, symbolised in the wounded Lamb who stands up. The two images are brought together in one event, and the saint’s mind is able to hold both truths of her faith at once, without committing to one at the exclusion of the other. In addition, contemplation of the human person as image of God is alluded to: in the Eucharist, we who are the Body of Christ receive the Body of Christ. The transformation of the beloved one into her Lover is again alluded to later in the vision, which describes a “wreath of gleaming gold with the words: ‘His eyes in my eyes, His heart in my heart, His soul in my soul, Embraced and unwearied (and her face seemed the face of an angel).'” (Beer 1992:86)

Despite polemic that the Latin devotion to the Passion excludes contemplation of the mystery of the Resurrection, in Magdeburg’s vision although the imagery in that particular example is focused on the Crucified Christ, it is not divorced from Resurrection, or even apocalyptic-end time, images. In the vision of the wounded lamb, the lamb is alive as the resurrected Christ, who still bears his wounds (as we attest on Thomas Sunday, the first Sunday after Easter). The sister who receives communion is identified as an image of Christ, referencing Genesis in which humanity is made in the image of God, while the Lamb of God intimates not only John the Baptist’s preaching, but the imagery employed in the book of Revelation. The vision, in a sense, sums up the cosmological cycle of Christian time, and roots itself in the here and now through the mystery of the Eucharist.

Identification with the image of Christ also alludes to an underlying emphasis in the conventual life, of imitating Christ. That identification is brought out explicitly by Magdeburg in the third and seventh books,p where she “describes the passion and crucifixion of the individual soul, revealing that her spiritual ordeal, insofar as it mirrors that of Christ, is a way of regaining the divine likeness and achieving union” (Beer 1992:105). Later, in book seven, written at Helfta, Magdeburg broadens this imagery to embrace the entire community. The bride of Christ is the Church, and the Church is the Body of Christ, as much as is the individual Christian, who as a member of the Church, is also a member of the Body of the Crucified One. No contradiction between the individual sister as bride and the Church as a whole as bride is evinced.

Magdeburg’s disciple Gertrude also references the substantial identity humans have with God through the Incarnation. In one passage, she writes that Christ is he who has become ‘bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh;’ the incarnation is paralleled in the Eucharist, reception of which allows the recipient to incorporate Christ so that his flesh becomes a part of her own (Winkworth 1993:103). The resulting association then draws together love imitating love, the wounds of the Cross, and a union of flesh through Eucharist and Incarnation as God becomes human and humans, through the mystery of the altar, receive a God made flesh.

Gertrude is perhaps the most interesting example for illustrating the idea of stigmata and devotion to the wounds of Christ. For Gertrude, the stigmata are both medicinal draught and intoxicating liquor; the intoxicating liquor,as the Blood of Christ, is also the Eucharistic cup. In her writings, she records in a dialogue with Christ that she received “the stigmata of your adorable and venerable wounds interiorly in my heart, just as though they had been made on the natural places of the body [i.e. physically, not psychologically]. By these wounds you not only healed my soul, but you gave me to drink of the inebriating cup of love’s nectar” (Winkworth 1993:100). Gertrude describes the wounds of Christ impressed on her heart as a transformation or healing though love.

In a passage immediately preceding the description of Gertrude’s own reception of interior stigmata, Gertrude quotes a prayer to Jesus which reads in part, ‘Inscribe with your most precious blood, most merciful Lord, your wounds on my heart, that I may read in them both your sufferings and your love. May the memory of your wounds ever remain in the hidden places of my heart, to stir up within me your compassionate sorrow, so that the flame of your love may be enkindled in me’ (Winkworth 1993:99). The Eucharist, as the immediately accessible Blood of Christ, is the means by which Christ’s love is written in the Gertrude’s heart. Through the Eucharist, which was made possible by the Passion and Crucifixion, particularly the wound in Christ’s side from which flowed blood and water, Gertrude read not simply suffering, but also love. The goal of meditating upon the connexions between crucifixion, eucharistic blood, and love, was to rouse within herself a reciprocal love and devotion to Christ.

In a passage where Gertrude advised her readers to meditate on the love of Christ’s heart as he hung on the cross, she makes the intention of reciprocal love quite clear. She meditates on the love of Christ’s heart, she writes, ‘so that from the fountains of charity flowing from the fervour of such inexpressible love I might draw the waters of devotion that wash away all offences…’ (Winkworth 1993:101; cf. Bernard, Songs 18.5). The association of love with Christ’s heart would later help shift devotion from the Wounds of Love to the Sacred Heart specifically; but that development occurred over the course of centuries.

As a concrete example of the sort of meditation Gertrude means, in Bk II, Ch 5, she relates how she asked someone to pray a particular prayer for her before the crucifix: “By your wounded Heart, most loving Lord, pierce her heart with the arrow of your love, so that it may become unable to hold anything earthly, but may be held fast solely by the power of your divinity.” Gertrude then relates that after receiving the Eucharist, she saw a vision: a ray of sunlight came out from the side wound of the Crucifixion image painted in a book. The ray had a point like an arrow, spread itself out, then drew back into the page (Winkworth 1993:101). Here again, Gertrude connects Eucharist, Passion-Crucifixion, and love. Interestingly enough, this vision is clearly associated with an icon, or at least a manuscript miniature, contained in the prayerbook.

In another passage, Gertrude writes that one “regarding [the] crucifix is to contemplate Jesus saying, ‘See how I hung upon the cross for love of you, naked and despised, my body covered with wounds and every limb out of joint” (Winkworth 1993:210). In this passage, Gertrude clearly expresses her belief that the crucifixion wasn’t a mere means to death for Christ; it was a death accepted out of love for humanity. Likewise, humans must express compassion towards Christ. Getrude points out that the wounds of Christ, like those of any man wounded in battle, need bathing, anointing, and bandaging; prayer, contemplation, and works of mercy, along with right intent, are the means by which that is accomplished. Meditation was not simply emotive, but served to remind the Christian of his or her practical duty.

From meditation on the person of the lover hung on the Cross, the mystic then moves her attention to the wounds suffered out of that love. Those wounds are then personalised and given agency all their own. (The relationship of these wounds to the Body of Christ imagery in which each member is given a role within the Church does not seem to have been drawn, either in Latin rite or Byzantine rite countries.) From here, it is a small step to meditate simply on the wounds themselves (without an initial meditation on the Cross of the Body on the Cross), as the bodily heralds of divine love. Thus, along with meditation on the love of Christ represented by the Cross, Gertrude describes how she recited Ps 102 (Bless the Lord O my soul), vv1-5 while meditating on five wounds: The first verse referred to the feet, where, she said, ‘I was granted to lay down upon the wounds of your sacred feet the scouring rust of sin and all attachments to the worthless pleasures of the world.’ The second verse moved to the wound in the side, where were washed ‘all the stains of fleshly and ephemeral pleasure in the fountain of your cleansing love, whence blood and water flowed for me.’ The third verse belonged to the left hand, imagined as a dove’s nest, while the fourth, right hand, was a treasury of virtue. Finally, by the fifth verse, she was purged of the infamy of sin by Christ’s ‘sweetest and most longed for presence.’ (Winkworth 1993)

Gertrude’s meditation on the Five Wounds was the means by which she felt her soul could bless God, as the Psalmist asked. Through the meditation, she moves from a washing away of sin and attachment, to a deeper cleansing through love. Realising love, she found a place in which to repose, and a means by which she could find a path to bring forth the virtuous fruits of the Holy Spirit. At the end of the meditation, purged of all other attachments and longing only for her Beloved, she finds him.

Ideas relating the love and wounds of Christ continued to play out into the fourteenth century. The Anima Christi prayer, composed no later than 1370 and allegedly by Pope John XXII (who was decidedly not a staunch ally of Franciscan zeal), exemplifies how the Latin devotions to the Passion, Wounds, and Eucharist as Body and Blood of Jesus, become securely fused by the time the Renaissance period was beginning. Devotion to the wounds of Christ culminates in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, particularly in French devotion to the Sacred Heart; it has recently resurfaced , associated with the Polish devotion to Divine Mercy, popularised by Bl Faustina and the late Pope John Paul II (who died on the feast day associated with Divine Mercy, corresponding to the Orthodox Thomas Sunday). The difference in devotion to the Divine mercy is its lack of physicality, though it contains the very visual depiction of red and white rays associated with the blood and water which flowed from Jesus’ side at the close of the crucifixion. The movement from blood to light is a movement towards abstraction, and mirrors the historical pendulum from abstract Cross to personalised devotion to the Crucified Bridegroom, back to an abstraction in the Blood of Christ and again to a personalised Sacred Heart, which then becomes abstracted into devotion to Divine Mercy, never quite losing its association with Eucharistic devotion.

The Crusading Ideal: Take up the Cross and Follow Me

Devotion to the wounds of Christ did not develop in a vacuum. I already alluded to the troubadour tradition of songs, and the courtly romances being produced during the period. That literature, too, functioned in the context of an internationally focused military recruitment history has called the Crusades. The Crusades were so named because a ‘Crusader’ is one who takes up the Cross; the link is even more obvious in French and Spanish (croix, cross; croisade, crusade; cruz, cross; cruzado, crusader). Through a linking of the Cross, Crusades, and devotion to Christ, Francis became central to both popular devotion and elite Latin theology of the period. This network was all the more resilient once friars began to supplant monks as the preachers for the Crusading ideal. I will therefore briefly examine how the themes of the legend of the Cross and Devotion to the Crucified Christ were used in some Crusading sermons which have survived in manuscript collections, and how devotion to the Cross comes back to Francis, as the human who perfectly took up the Cross in imitation of Christ. Maier’s 1994 work, Preaching the Crusades: Mendicant friars and the cross in the Thirteenth Century offers the most sustained account of this theme, and the next section relies almost exclusively on his research.

The first crusade relied on monks as the preachers, but the initial effervescence of idealism spread to the monastic orders themselves. The period saw the emergence of several monastic reforming orders, among which the Cistercians, with Bernard of Clairvaux as their spokesperson, were the most successful. In the succeeding century, however, as the Franciscan and Dominican mendicant orders grew, friars were more often used to preach crusade. Friars had several advantages over monastics as international preachers. Not only were mendicants generally not bound to one particular house and its rule of devotions, friaries were more often located in urban areas (where the friars could minister to the urban poor), whereas monks were more often found in the countryside. Like the Cistercians before them, friars were able to extend the papal centralisation programme as a corollary of their preaching; preachers chosen because of familiarity to both cardinals and curia and to the crusaders, their lands, and customs (Maier 1994:34). (The friars may also have inadvertantly spread the university programme throughout Europe as well, but that is another topic.) If the friar-preachers were familiar with the curia, then they also had a potential investment in elite and scholarly theological programme, among which were cosmologies which placed Francis at the apogee of the human capacity for transformation, through love, in God, by the economy of Christ’s passion and blood.

Ironically, most crusader sermons which have been preserved are from secular clerics, not friars. Textual content for these sermons exists in several model crusade summons, and sermons on this theme begin to appear in sermon collections at start of thirteenth century, especially at the University of Paris (Maier 1994:111). Maier points out that recruitment sermons for the Crusades often coincided, in theme at least, with the two feast days of the Cross in the Latin-rite Calendar, May 2/3 and September 14. As Maier writes, “the connexion between preaching the cross and preaching on the feast days of the cross is obvious. Sermons for the feast days of the cross usually concentrate on the properties and the symbolism of the cross and the devotion on the crucified Christ. In such sermons the theme of crusading is often used as a metaphor for the journey to the heavenly Jerusalem. Model sermons for the feast days of the Cross might thus have provided crusade preachers with themes or illustrate material for crusade recruitment sermons” (Maier 1994:113).

Among the preachers whose sermons or sermon collections have come down to us, Gilbert of Tournai’s sermons 132 – 137 refer to the Cross or recruit for the Crusades; Humbert of Romans has a sermon on the Cross from the latter thirteenth century (no 90, De predicatione S. Crucis, ca. 1266 – 1268); while both Roger of Salisbury (for more on him, See Cole, Preaching 227 -31) and Frederick Visconti were other Crusade preachers whose works have survived. (Maier 1994:112. For more on medieval preaching, Maier refers to D’Avray; Cole; Powell.) John Russel’s Crusade recruitment sermon is followed by a de cruce sermon in the MS fragment (in Bodleian: Digby 154 (1755)), which “seems that it was meant to provide material for a distinctio on signum crucis.” (Maier cites Smalley 1956. ‘John Russel OFM’ in Recherches de Théologie Ancienne et Mediévale 23:277-320, esp 280f) Likewise, Eudes Châteauroux’s sermon on the Invention of Cross includes recruiting passages. The influence, though, went both ways. Crusading themes, for example, appear in Alain Lille’s Sermo de Cruce Domini.

Crusader sermons, or at least the models which were copied into collections, generally relied on two tactics to move their audience to take up the Cross. One obvious tactic was to arouse aggression and anger towards the enemy of faith. These enemies were by no means confined to ‘Saracens’ or Saljuk Turks; after all, ‘crusades’ were preached for the Levant (to free the Holy Sites and in theory return them to the Roman Emperor in Constantinople), the Baltics (which were pagan at the time, wedged between Catholic Poland and Mongol-occupied Russia), North Africa (formerly part of Justinian’s empire, and thus a part of Christendom), Spain, and S France (against the so-called Cathars) (Maier 1994:116).

The other tactic is more interesting for tracing how Francis becomes a node in a network of symbols. This second tactic was to arouse penitential and devotional sentiments among the listeners. This could easily have been done by focusing on the wounds and violence suffered by Christ, inflicted by his enemies and who prevented Christ’s loved ones from approaching him. In support of this theme, the narrative movement from the symbolic nature of taking up the cross in Crusade, to devotion to Christ Crucified, miracles and visions are not infrequently reported. Maier recounts the case of Oliver of Cologne, who preached the Cross/ crusade in Frisia in 1214: “Several times Oliver’s preaching was said to have evoked visions of the Crucified Christ in the sky which caused a multitude of people to take up the Cross” (Maier 1994:120).

Although I have not read an account of Francis appearing during such sermons, he, of course, is one who took up the cross into his own body, as evidenced by the stigmata, and could hardly have been far from the minds of either the sermon composers, or those who listened to Franciscan preachers. On the other hand, in the Scripta Leonis, a work about Francis by his close companion Brother Leo, a Crusader sermon delivered by Francis himself is mentioned in which Francis praises Charlemagne for his victory over enemies of the faith, alluding to a history his audience shared and admired (Maier 1994:16), but the usual themes of taking up the Cross do not seem to have been repeated there, in the East, to the Crusaders who had already responded to such calls.

Papal legates were not always successful in winning over peasants, however. A thirteenth century Dominican MS near Bern (Bern Burgherbibliotek 679ff, 68v-69r) contains the story of an unlearned cleric who was tasked to do what several papal legates could not: convince the village to take up cross. He began his sermon to the wary villagers (wary because they were encountering yet another cleric preaching to them about taking up the cross) with an image which would be quite familiar to them. ‘Which is more difficult,’ he began, ‘threshing or winnowing?’ ‘Threshing takes 10 people, winnowing only 1, so threshing,’ replied the villagers. The cleric then said he was there to winnow the grain which the legates had threshed. He continued the metaphor with a short sermon. “He reminded the people of the opportunity to be absolved from their sins which Christ had offered them through his passion on the cross, his death, and the shedding of his blood. He said they had the choice of either taking cross and ‘become grains taken to the barn of paradise’ or chaff for the fire “(Maier 1994:121). In that short sermon, taking up the cross is seen as a way to demonstrate gratitude for the wounds suffered by Christ. The sermon ends by reminding the villagers that their souls could be fruitful, and stored up, or they could be meaningless and blow away in the wind. The theme of Crusade as a journey to Paradise or salvation, evoked in the imagery of being stored up, rather than dispersed is invoked. But a shift has occurred in this short sermon: it relies on guilt, rather than on love, as a motivating factor, at least in the snippet which survives.

The idea of Crusading as a means to salvation was not foreign to Francis. Francis himself is recorded to have gone East, to the Crusader stronghold of Damietta, burning with zeal for martyrdom during the fifth crusade, in 1219. Francis’ companion during his time in Damietta seems to have been Friar Illuminatus, whom Bonaventure places with Francis during his meeting with the Sultan, and implies that Friar Illuminatus may have been the source of that account. (Bonaventure is the author who later introduces the ordeal by fire during Francis’ visit with the Sultan.) The story in Julian of Speyer and Thomas of Celano follows a typical topos, Maier points out, so he turns to another contemporary source, James of Vitry. Maier quotes James of Vitry’s eye-witness account of Francis’ presence among the crusaders: ‘He [Francis] was not afraid to go into the camp of our enemy, burning with zeal for the faith; for several days he preached the word of God to the Saracens, but with little success’ (Maier 1994:9). The Vita Secunda records that Francis preached in front of Crusaders on Eve of battle not to go into battle on that day, for it would not go well , and not because of peace loving platform (Maier 1994:12). Francis is likewise quoted as using the scriptural advice to ‘tear out your eye’ to justify crusades, which, Maier asserts, “merely portrays him as a strict adherent of the contemporary doctrine commonly used to justify the crusades” (Maier 1994:15).

The Cross was of particular importance during the Fifth Crusade negotiations in summer of 1219. In addition to the return of the Holy City, the sultan offered to return a relic of Holy Cross lost to Saladin in 1187. Maier notes that the relic may actually have been lost permanently, for the Crusaders brought pieces of the True Cross with them to Damietta from Rome (Maier 1994:13). A specific event during that visit links Francis with the Cross, and specifically with his own theology of the Cross, which he delivers in a speech to the Sultan. An account dating from around 1256 – 1273 relates that before he granted audience to Francis, the Sultan placed on the ground a cloth with crosses embroidered on it to see if Francis would tread on the cross. Francis did, in fact, do so. When asked how he could do so without offending God, Francis replied: “You must know that along with our Lord thieves were crucified. We in fact have the cross of God and our Saviour Jesus Christ, and it is this cross which we worship and embrace with all our devotion. The holy cross of God has been given to us, whereas the crosses of the thieves were left as your share; this is why I was not afraid to walk over the signs of the thieves. Nothing of the sacred cross of the Saviour belongs to you or is amongst you” (Maier 1994:14). Interestingly, devotion to the wounds of Christ, a belief which is not shared in Islam, was not mentioned in Francis’ sermon to the Sultan. Of course, Francis preached in front of the sultan before his reception of stigmata; one wonders what, if any, impression a stigmatist would have made in such a situation.

The Cross makes its way into the Francis story again, but this time, the evidence comes from art historical sources. The Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo, and Santa Croce in Florence, both in Italy, offer two examples of the convergence of the two theological themes. Although named after St Francis, the Basilica of San Francesco is more famous for its frescoes depicting Jacob of Voraigne’s History of the True Cross than it is for any portrayal of St Francis. Santa Croce, on the other hand, offers the opposite case: a church dedicated to, and housing, relics of the True Cross, is nevertheless enmeshed in cycles depicting St Francis’ life, in addition to frescoes about the Cross. (For a full treatment on this theme see also Baert 2004. A Heritage of Holy Wood: The Legend of the True Cross in Text and Image, esp 384ff.)

In her article on Sta Croce, Franciscans, and the True Cross, Thompson (2004) indicates that “Francis’ reception of the stigmata gave his followers a unique claim on Christ’s wounds, and images commissioned by the Franciscan order in the thirteenth century and early fourteenth centuries consistently emphasized Francis’ dedication to Christ’s Passion.” (see Thompson 2004. “The Franciscans and the True Cross: The Decoration of the Cappella Maggiore of Santa Croce in Florence”. Gesta, vol 43, No 1:61 – 79.) In particular, she notes that “while the early apse program [of the history of the True Cross, painted by Cimabue and Ugolino da Siena] proclaims the centrality of the cross and of Christ’s Passion to Franciscan worship, Francis’ role as the Alter Christus, and Francis’ place in the history of human salvation, Gaddi’s frescoes of the True Cross celebrate the potency of the relic.” In other words, the positioning and narrative discourse conveyed by the frescoes to the viewer gathers together several associations at once: Christ, the Holy Cross, Christ’s passion, Francis’ sharing in that Passion, and the prophetic-eschataological role of Elijah the Prophet (which I will not discuss here). Thompson further argues that “The relic of the True Cross that rested on the Franciscan altar in Santa Croce was not just a symbol of Christ’s suffering. Within a Bonaventuran frame, it referred to the stigmata with which God marked Francis at La Verna,” and, as she argues, with the eschatological view in which all people will be marked by the Cross in Paradise.

Among the Franciscan saints portrayed in Sta Croce, two are particularly associated with the Crusades: Gerardo of Villamagna, who was first a Knight of Jerusalem and later a hermit of the third order of Franciscans; and Pietro da Siena. Both of whom “took on Francis’ charge in the rule of 1221 to go and preach among and, with luck, convert the Saracens in order to attain martyrdom. While Pietro died for his beliefs in the style of an early Christian martyr like Minias, Gerardo … lived [his life] in imitation of Francis and Christ; they were made like Christ not through physical martyrdom, but through the enkindling of their souls” {Thompson 2004:73). The association of Francis’ vision is thus further tied to Crusading and missionary work, as well as to the simple devotion of hermits who remained at home, devoted to poverty and ministering to those in need locally.

As already mentioned, the earlier churches of Arrezo and montegiorgio contain scenes from Jacob of Voraigne’s History of the True Cross. Baert notes that the fresco cycles in both Montegiorgio and Arrezo take care to highlight the presence of Constantine I, or both Constantine I and Heraclius, in their associations with the cross. Baert suggests this was due to Franciscan concerns about the unity of Christendom. The fate of Constantinople (if it fell to the Seljuks, for example) was of interest to them.

Especially noteworthy in the Montegiorgio cycle of frescoes on the Cross is the Judas Cyriacos/ Kyriakos legend. While that legend as a whole includes the conversion of the Jew as one trope, it is another aspect of the written (not frescoed) story which may be the origin of Francis’ Seraph of the Stigmata. In particular, the Judas Kyriakos narrative contained in the devotional text The Invention of the Cross, a text which survives in several languages, offers not only a narrative which circulated in both the Byzantine Commonwealth and the Latin Kingdoms of East and West, but it also contains a small detail which easily elides with the particulars of Francis’ reception of stigmata around Sept 14 on Mt Alverno. (The narrative was eventually codified in the West in Jacob de Voraigne’s Golden Legend; ‘Invention’ in this case means something like ‘Finding’ or ‘Discovery’ by St Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great.)

Unlike other accounts of the finding of the Cross, in the Judas Kyriakos legend, the focus is on the Cross, more than on St Helena. However, it is the presence of a Seraph in the Judas Kyriakos legend and in the account of Francis’ stigmata contained in Thomas of Celano which seems curious. In the Judas Kyriakos legend, Judas capitulates to Helena’s request to show her the hiding place of the True Cross. “On the eight day Judas gives in and shows Helena the place where Christ was crucified. Praying in Hebrew he asks God for a sign. He calls God a creator, the maker of the Cherubim, who serve Him, and the Seraphim who guard the Tree of Life at the centre of Paradise” (Baert 2004:44). The Tree of Life is not just at the centre of the garden; it is also the Cross. The Seraphim thus are also guardians of the Cross. Together with icons of ministering angels holding the instruments of the Passion (as appear in the Virgin Eleousa icons, or Our Lady of Perpetual Help in the West), angels come to be associated with Christ’s crucifixion. It seems a curious coincidence to then have a Seraph, specifically, a crucified man with six wings, appear to Francis during the vision after which he developed stigmata. To my knowledge, none of the medieval writers, and no frescoes make this parallel; my conclusion, then, is that to the Christians of the time, the vision was more important for other reasons — its association with Seraphim burning with love, for example — than with any specific attempt to identify the Seraph of the Passion with the Seraphim who guard the Tree of Life in the Judas Kyriakos legend.

Summary of Section

In this section, I asked the principal question, ‘Why were Francis’ stigmata understood as proof of his conformation to Christ — in the West — and why were such marks absent in Byzantium’s holy men and women? Taking as a starting point the association of Francis’ stigmata with the Cross (his stigmata were received on or around Sept 14), and the idea that they confirmed conformation to Christ, I examined devotion to the Passion in the Byzantine Commonwealth and the Latin Kingdoms, with an eye to also looking at how evidence of conformation to Christ was evidenced in both geopolitical worldviews.

I argued that Byzantium had a devotion to the Passion, and like the devotion to the Passion in the West, was associated with the Eucharist, or specifically, the Eucharistic liturgy. I concluded that while both Byzantium and the Latin Kingdoms of East and West had a common devotion to the Cross, Passion, and Eucharist, these three elements had different associated ideas in each rite. For the Byzantines, the Passion and Eucharist are associated with icons, so necessary for the public liturgy and accessible to private devotion; emotive liturgical hymns focused on the relationship of Mary and Christ. The Passion is also associated with relics. Both relics and icons are associated with sainthood. In the Latin Rite(s), The Passion and Eucharist are associated with the wounds of Christ, and the motivating impulse of the Word towards humanity, namely, Love. Both the wounds and Love are tied together with commentaries on the Song of Songs, which is itself associated with the Troubadour tradition of literature at the time. Finally, the Cross is associated with fealty and the Crusades, as well as with the Body which hung on it and is received in the Eucharist. Crusaders, as I showed in sermon extracts, could be aroused to fight through devotion to Christ’s love.

Clearly, when how Francis was portrayed in both the popular art and elite hagiography of the Latin West in the century after his death is taken into account, Francis ‘fits’ into the Latin network of associations much more easily than he does the Byzantine. Francis’s love and devotion to Christ, Francis’ association with the Crusades, Francis’ own poetical compositions, and Francis’ stigmata all combine to draw together those previously constructed associations of ‘nodes’ in the Latin spiritual tradition(s). Writers and speculative theologians expanded upon those associations, forming a cosmology into which Francis could fit, and including the choirs of angels and transformation in Christ. Francis does not fit into a rite whose liturgical foci centred around Stavrotheotokia hymns, iconoclasm, and material relics of the historical Passion. This does not mean that Francis could not fit into such a scheme today; merely that it disrupts the ‘symmetry’ in place at the time.

Francis’ stigmata would not have been understood in Byzantium unless framed in terms of post-iconoclastic rhetoric. For Byzantines, the understanding of transformation was couched in social terms related to becoming an icon, either in the sense of leaving behind relics, or in the sense of having an icon painted afterwards. Francis could potentially have been understood in Byzantium as a ‘living icon’, had commentators framed their presentation in terms of iconographia rather than imitatio, conformatio, or participatio. Yet one could argue that the presence of theological positions rooted in opposition to written icons (i.e. ongoing iconoclasm in Anatolia) would mitigate against any orthodox argument that humans could be or become living or true icons as well. That is, if a person could become a living icon, of what use are written icons? It is because a person has become a divinised being that the icon takes its purpose and ‘power’ (if we are to use such terms), not the other way around.

Additionally, later Byzantine theological rhetoric (rhetoric in the sense of literary or textual evidence using particular lines of argumentation and imagery) regarding transformation into Christ focused on Tabor or post-Resurrection events. This emphasis, traceable in origin to the eleventh century, lead not only to the later Hesychast emphasis on the uncreated light, but more immediately for determining holiness, on the presence of post-mortem relics. Living persons were too ‘unstable’ to be certain of their holiness. The age of living saints, as present in the Isaurian and Heraclian dyansties, was giving way to a different conception of ‘the Holy Man’ during the Comnenian and subsequent periods. (For people unfamiliar with Orthodox spirituality and relics, I would refer to the nineteenth century correlate of what I am describing in Dostoevsky’s Brother’s Karamazov, particularly the chapters surrounding the death of Father Zosima).

I don’t think a strong argument could be made that perhaps Byzantine spirituality was not as bodily-centred as Latin-rite spirituality. Symeon the New Theologian and his life certainly present evidence against that view, as do the later very physical descriptions of Hesychastic meditation and meditative techniques.

Both Byzantium and the Latin kingdoms faced a loss in their access to the materiality of the Passion. For Byzantium, the loss came through theft of the relics gathered by the Imperial family during the Latin occupation of Constantinople in the thirteenth century. Devotion to these relics continued in the subsequent Paliaologan and Romanov dynasties, but through the medium of icons which made those relics present to the devout. For the Latin countries, the loss of their Eastern kingdoms cut off access to the sites of the Passion, and solace was taken in devotions which had already begun to make their appearance during the Crusading period for people who could not make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem during that time. Although relics of the Passion were housed in locations as various as Saint-Chapelle in Paris, various churches in Rome and Venice, and chapels in the Holy Roman Empire, it was the private devotion afforded by the Stations of the Cross, the Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, and the Wounds of Christ Crucified which kept the sites and events of the Passion in the hearts of the devout. Those reminders stirred the devout to remember the power of love, without thereby detracting from the experience of the Resurrected Christ, who was present in the Eucharistic elements as both Love-wounded and Love-stronger-than-death.

Keeping in mind these two sets of comparison, the larger Latin tradition of naming something ‘stigmata’ and the liturgically influenced Byzantine spirituality of the Cross, a comparison of the Latin ‘ecology’ of religious symbols in the twelfth and early thirteenth century with roughly contemporary Byzantine devotional forms (themselves undergoing changes in the eleventh and twelfth centuries) has demonstrated how they symbolic associations of Francis stigmata ‘fit’ a Latin context, but would not have been clearly understood in the Byzantine Commonwealth under the Comneni.

Byzantine Devotion to the Passion? Francis, Stigmata and Polemic (Part 6a)

Discussion of allied questions: Trajectories of Latin and Byzantine Devotion to the Passion

(For readers unfamiliar with the naming conventions, ‘Latin’ in this post means what we today term ‘Roman Catholic’ and includes Germanic and Latin-language speaking monarchies in North and West Europe, while ‘Orthodox’ means ‘Greek Orthodox’. As the topic pre-dates Luther and Calvin, ‘Latin’ would also encompass those denominations which later took shape in Northwest Europe, as their roots lay in a ‘Latin’-rite context. Likewise with regard to the Russian Patriarchate: ‘Orthodox’ would include all those churches associated with Constantinople in the ‘Byzantine Commonwealth’.)

In the previous post I looked at the origins of the term ‘stigmata’ among the monks of St Peter Damian. I showed that in contrast to other mystics of the time, Francis’ wounds are not recorded to have been self-inflicted. According to the evidence we have in Thomas of Celano and Julian of Speyer, Francis’ stigmata were not taken upon himself by Francis himself — no self-flagellation or self-piercing is recorded in the context of his reception of stigmata. This is the case even though Francis’ efforts at self-mortification earlier in his life were clearly noted, and despite the almost commonplace recording of other mystics’ self-induced ‘stigmata’. One final difference between Francis’ stigmata and the wounds of previous and contemporary mystics is that in Francis’ case, the wounds are recorded as having contained nails, which were not removed (or not removable?), and the wounds did not heal. In other words, Francis’ hagiographers had no reason to break with earlier tradition if they wished to demonstrate that his stigmata were proof of devotion. The only reason to do so would be for literary effect (such as one finds in the Fioretti), and neither Thomas nor Julian’s accounts seem written in that vein.

In terms of the larger tradition, Francis’ stigmata were explicitly associated with the Cross, having appeared around September 14, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, and with burning love, appearing after the image of a Seraph, an association elaborated upon by hagiographical commentators and speculative cosmologically-oriented theologians. Francis’ stigmata seem never to have been associated with judgement or punishment. Even the Alsatian sisters whom I referenced in the previous section seem not to have viewed their self-flagellation as punishment, but rather as Imitatio Christi, or at this early date perhaps the term Participatio is preferable. Likewise, Francis’ stigmata were treated as a seal indicative of perfect or perfected conformation to Christ’s life. Francis’ stigmata, as a seal of conformation to Christ, ultimately fit into the larger tradition of Imitatio Christi. In Francis’ case, however, the peculiar manifestation of the wounds in his body moves beyond spiritual imitation through the inner life and outward acts of mercy and enters the realm of physical transformation.

Thus we return to the original question asked at the start of this section: Why stigmata as a sign of participation in Christ? I earlier proposed the answer: because non-self-induced stigmata would be understood a particular way by Francis’ contemporaries. Though clearly shaped by later commentators, the question of why miraculous stigmata are absent among Byzantine saints, and the subsequent question of how stigmata might have been interpreted within a Byzantine theological framework, without distorting or discounting the assumptions of that framework, remain open. Several possibilities, however, present themselves. Key to answering these questions is understanding the historical associations surrounding devotion to the Passion in the context of eleventh and twelfth century Byzantium, and a comparison of like devotions as they developed about a century later in the Latin West.

The purpose of uncovering similarities and differences between East Roman and Italian City State spirituality is to discover why stigmata appeared or ‘made sense’ in the West but not in the East, and rests on the fundamental theorem that a miracle of holiness only occurs in a context in which it can be interpreted as such without doing violence to the preceding tradition. It seeks to answer the question, ‘Why in Italy and not Byzantium?’

Misunderstanding of Latin devotion to the Passion on the part of Orthodox Christians continues today. Quenot (1997:167), in discussing the role of the icon in Orthodoxy compares the ‘cross of pain’ in West with the ‘glorious cross’ in East, neglecting to realise that the ‘cross of pain’ imagery really doesn’t begin to show in the West until after the sixteenth century, during an era of increased medicalisation and anatomical studies, a resurgence of plagues, imperialist expansion in the Americas, and Protestant-Catholic polemic wherein accusations of morbid crucifixion scenes could be re-appropriated by Catholics as identity markers (and made even more extreme as a result). The seeming absence of devotion to the Passion within Orthodoxy (outside of Holy Week services), presents an additional hindrance to placing Francis and his stigmata in context. Without private devotions like the Stations of the Cross or the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, why should Passion devotion be understood by the Orthodox? In fact, however, Byzantium, or Orthodoxy, did have devotions to the Passion, which flourished under the Comnenian dynasty of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. That is the first of two principal arguments in this post. The second is that the changes in iconography of the Passion during this period in Byzantium mirror those dispositions which motivated devotion to the Passion among medieval Latin Christians, whose writings served to promote devotion to the Passion.

Both Byzantine and Latin developments in the eleventh through thirteenth centuries are associated with increasing contacts with Jerusalem from the eleventh century onwards, and both seem to be rooted in an initial devotion to the Holy Cross. How that commonality manifested itself in hymns, liturgical commemoration, and private devotion, however, slowly changed during the centuries surrounding Francis’ life. I will therefore briefly explore the development of devotion to the Passion-Crucifixion in the Byzantine empire and the Latin West as they were presented and shaped during the Central Middle Ages, roughly corresponding to the eleventh through thirteenth centuries.

Renewed impetus for these devotions emerged in the East when Constantine IX Monomachos funded the rebuilding of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the emperors of the succeeding Comnenian dynasty gathered relics of the Passion from Jerusalem to the capital. In the Latin kingdoms of both East and West, the main driver of these devotions was provided by the Crusades and the transnational society permitted by a ‘Latin East’ connected to Northwest Europe. Part and parcel of the Crusades were preachers, pilgrims, and soldiers, each of which had their own particular spiritual concerns and emphases, which they brought with them to the East, and back with them to the West and North.

I will begin with Byzantium, as the forms taken by and stimulus to devotion to the Cross and Passion there pre-date the emergence of similar changes in devotional patterns in the West.

In Byzantium, of course, devotion was both constrained and informed by the recent two-century struggle with iconoclasm, while the West had no such constraints placed upon its devotions. (Iconoclasm was not a major point of theological contention in the West until the sixteenth century, when both Catholic and especially Protestant churches had their walls stripped of frescoes and wall-paintings.) With regard to Byzantium, the creation of two icons, the Nymphios icon in the eleventh century and its associated services in Holy Week, and the Man of Sorrows icon following soon after, both illustrate how devotional patterns focused on the Passion developed during the period. A minor controversy over the heterodox use to which an Akathist hymn to the Mandylion (the Veronica/ Face of Christ icon) was put towards the end of the twelfth century sharply curtailed the official popularity of other icons associated with the Passion.

For the Latin West, two strands of devotion to the passion roughly contemporary to Francis’ lifetime will be examined. The first are strictly devotional-theological in nature, while the second is more social, and treats the uses to which devotion to the Cross and Passion were put by preachers recruiting in the North for the Crusades. The fact that Francis did visit the Latin kingdoms of Outre-Mer, will provide the international flavour these devotions had in the Latin-rite church, and clearly help situate Francis within the character of the emerging High Medieval period. Most evidence, however, will be drawn from North of the Alps. This is somewhat unfortunate, as Francis’ career geographically spans the Mediterranean basin.

One final element in the Latin and German speaking countries during the period, which I will not explore in this post, is the emphasis on love as transformative, a theme especially taken up within the Troubadour tradition as it becomes assimilated to the religious context of the Ligurian littoral (eleventh through thirteenth centuries). While St Symeon the New Theologian (d. 1022) also emphasised love and desire (see his Hymn to Eros) as key to religious devotion, the ‘ecology of love’ and its language present in Byzantium under the Comneni was rather different from that elaborated by the courtly romances in Aquitaine and Champagne in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Since the differences in how romantic love was conceived is incidental to my argument, I will not go into detail about them here; suffice it to note that although Manuel Comnenos was interested in courtly love and traditions, and at least four medieval Greek romances exist, those influences do not seem to have been enough to impact how Byzantine devotion to Christ or his icons was expressed linguistically (at least in the materials available to me).

The resulting developments in both Byzantium and the Latin-rite world create a network of devotional practises, stemming from similar points of reference, but which nonetheless come to resonate with different nodes in the two geographic and liturgical traditions. These nodes become foundational for much of what becomes ‘essentialised’ as ‘Catholic’ and ‘Orthodox’ spirituality in the succeeding centuries.

The Passion of the Byzantine Commonwealth

What was devotion to the Passion like in twelfth century Byzantium? If so, what forms did it take?

Byzantium had a devotion to the Passion, and an emotionally-charged devotion at that, but three elements conspired to channel that devotion into the specific directions it took for the Commonwealth, especially as compared to the forms which developed in the Latin kingdoms. The first and most important element was the role of the icon in Byzantine society. Icons during the period continued to serve doctrinal ends, but at the same time became more emotive and abstract. New icons, such as the Nymphios, Threnos, Mandylion, and Akra Tapeinosis icons, were created through a convergence of monastic offices and private devotional material needs. The creation of these icons occurred in the context of the second element, the Imperial focus on gathering relics associated with the Passion from Jerusalem to the Capital. These relics not only drew attention tot he Passion itself, they also informed the new icons. After the sack of Constantinople by Venice in 1204, icons portraying the holy images of relics like the Veil of Veronica and the Shroud of Turin were all that remained in Byzantine hands, the actual relics having been borne away to the West. In the end, icons needed to meet both elite and popular devotional theology. The resulting union led the Byzantine Christian towards different associated theological ‘symbols’ than in the West, both in the initial assumptions about the icon (as material reminder of the reality of the Incarnation), the specific Eucharistic overtones the image might have possessed, and in the particular politico-dogmatic ends towards which approved icons were put.

The third element is wrapped up in a general scepticism among the literati regarding holy people, which led to devotional literature reflecting not hagiography, but the interior life. This shift in focus contributed to fostering a climate in which manifestations like stigmata would not have been understood or welcomed; and elite theologians resisted embedding the contemporary ‘holy man’ or ‘holy woman’ formally into the theological systems of the time. (This contrasts with the role Francis played for scholastic theological cosmologies, as noted in an earlier post.) The goal(s) of the interior life in the devotional literature that was produced (or more pointedly, which has survived) were transformation in Christ, in part via emotive conviction, but in greater part through experience of the divine light while still alive — and through ‘iconisation’ after death.

Change in Byzantine Culture in 11th and 12th centuries

To examine what sort of interpretation stigmata would have had in Byzantium, as an earthly representation of the crucified and risen Christ, the role and creation during the twelfth century of icons during which mirror the Passion-Resurrection may be informative. I will briefly describe the context in which these icons emerged, and the changes which occurred in iconography during the eleventh and twelfth centuries before I turn attention to specific icons of the Passion.

The eleventh and twelfth centuries, roughly corresponding to the dates of the Comneni dynasty (1081 – 1185), were a period of individualistic ferment in social and religious life in the East Roman Empire of Byzantium. A middle class had emerged through the twin means of trade and education, as the historian Angold details in Church and Society under the Comneni 1081 – 1261. This new middle class evinced a degree of individualism not previously seen in Byzantium on so wide a scale, and its commercial products, Angold writes, “were responsible for the new emphasis on the Hellenic element of Byzantine culture and on a humanist ethos. They seem to have been equally responsible for the changing patterns of piety” (Angold 1995:387). Those patterns shifted from an emphasis on the public and social displays characteristic of the preceding Macedonian dynasty, to private devotions and “an emphasis on the autonomy of the individual” (Angold 1995:6).
Angold suggests that public church services may have divided society; leading many to prefer private devotions in personal chapels and family monasteries, arguing that “if there was little open dissent” against the ruling elites — and the existence of icon- and sacrament-denying heresies in Anatolia and the Southern Balkans may belie that caveat — “there was [nonetheless] a degree of alienation from the imperial regime and a certain indifference to the hierarchical church in matters of worship and belief” (Angold 1995:7).

The primary vehicle by which Orthodoxy as a practice of both elite and popular elements remained cohesive during this period was, unsurprisingly, through the icon. Fortunately, Included among the commercial goods produced for the new middle class, and which have survived to the present, were icons meant for personal veneration (Kazhdan and Epstien 1985:97). In any event, images for veneration and procession are more common (or have more commonly survived) from the 11th and 12th centuries than earlier, even though the iconodule position was firmly established from the eighth century onwards.

Icons: Development and Devotion under the Comneni

With few exceptions, at the centre of private devotion during our period stood the icon. In part, the centrality of the icon may have been inspired by the fact that ‘fashions of lay piety seeped out from the monasteries’ (Angold 1995:391). The result is that monasteries hardly held a monopoly on icon veneration. Angold (1995:388) traces the existence of several confraternities in Byzantium dedicated specifically to veneration of a particular icon, church or shrine. (For more on these confraternities, see Hordein (1986). ‘The Confraternities of Byzantium’ in Studies in Church History 23:25 – 45.) Angold (1995:458) highlights several festivals centred around both a saint, the saint’s icon, and a confraternity devoted to the saint and his or her icon, among which were the Festival of Agatha in February; the Notaries’ festival on Nov 25, which, despite usually falling during the season of Advent, was celebrated as a Carnival, with people dressing in masks; and the ancient holiday of the Broumalia from Nov 24 to Jan 1. The pattern of Byzantine confraternities contrasts with the Western, specifically Italian model. Confraternities there made up for a weak state apparatus, particularly in the Italian city-states, and functioned side by side with various guilds and neighbourhoods demarcated by their dedication to particular saints. (In common with the Orthodox commonwealth, however, local celebrations for saint’s days can still be experienced in various parts of Italy and the rest of Catholic Europe; Italy in particular is famous for specific pastries associated with local saint day festivities.)

Given the centrality of the icon and its popularity in several strata of Byzantine society, it should be unsurprising that the icon began to undergo various changes during the Comnenian period. These changes ultimately established the criteria we use today to define what makes an icon an icon rather than a painting. As one well known twentieth-century iconographer writes, during eleventh through sixteenth century “the Church gave testimony above all about its conviction that if ‘God became man’ it is in order that ‘man might become God’; and the icon, in perfect harmony with theology and with the liturgy, pointed in a more special way to the fruit of the Incarnation, with the deification of man. With increasing precision, the icon showed the world an image of man become God through grace. .. Beginning with the eleventh century, it became a precise, exact, dogmatic system” (Ouspensky vol 2:207).

One change is that apocryphal subplots start to appear in icons. The presence of such narrative elements lent a more narrative function to icons, and allowed them function as a visual shorthand for meditating on a saint’s life (Kazhdan and Epstien 1985:97; footnote references Rothkrug 1979). An example of such an apocryphal subplot in the life of Jesus is the Threnos icon, to which we will return momentarily. The scene of Mary lamenting over the body of Christ purports to be a scene drawn from scripture; and yet it is not explicitly recorded in scripture — and therefore is called ‘apocryphal’, which, I would emphasise, does not mean ‘untrue’, or ‘invalid’ as a devotional theme).

Iconographic changes moved beyond the inclusion of narrative devices, however, towards the opposite direction. The precision of iconography stemming from the Comneni dynasty derives in part from stripping perspective out of the icon’s field. As Kazhdan and Epstein (1985:98-99) point out, perspective needs visual props — landscapes, incidental figures, buildings. The absence of perspective allows a greater degree of abstraction. The resulting abstraction and opulence worked together to clarify the focus of the icon, potentially playing out in the minds or experiences of the devout who venerated these new icons. Speaking specifically of Passion images in 12th century iconography, the art historian Belting points out that “a further consequence of the creation of this iconic type, which is isolated from any narrative context, is a transformation of the expression the image is conveying: the Christ figure lends itself to a contemplation which is no longer directed to a specific biblical scene but to the new reality as it exists in the liturgy” (Belting 1980:6).

Textual evidence attesting to the personal experience of a devout person from the period under discussion as he or she venerated or meditated in front of an icon is hard to come by. However, an early twentieth century Russian iconographer will illustrate what role the abstraction of an icon played in the spiritual development of some Orthodox faithful in his time. In the work, Icons: Windows on Eternity, Limouris quotes a ‘Letter of Muscovite iconogrpaher’ written in 1930. The letter first clarifies the function of an icon, before moving on to its role in prayer: “What does an icon, i.e. a picture expressed, or more exactly, revealed in a plastic form, do? It does the same as prayer [which to be authentic must have “a real bond with the prototype, whose action impresses its character on that prayer”] and in its highest modes of expression, a sacrament.”

This sacramental character of the icon is achieved, the anonymous iconographer writes, because “Iconography has its own intrinsic existence and meaning: it ascends towards the sublimest heavenly images and merges with them. But it also has an active, instructive meaning, for it teaches mystery. These two aspects are not separate of course, but constitute a whole.” (For the interested reader, Limouris 198 provides a side note on Russian contemplation, or diathaxis in Greek.)

In addition to both narrative inclusion and narrative abstraction during the Comnenian period, the icon also became more ‘humanised’. Subtle changes in how the subject was portrayed helped directed a shift in focus to the transfigured humanity of the icon’s subject. Quenot (1997:166) describes how, beginning in eleventh century crucifixion icons, “Christ appears with his eyes firmly shut, perhaps as a reminder of his mortal human nature. The increasingly curved position of his body served as a further indication of his death.” Additionally, although the Cross had for centuries been the subject of iconographic portrayal and veneration, even by iconoclasts, under the Comneni, the human subject of Jesus, and Jesus’ death emerged as an iconographic theme in several icons which make their initial appearances in this period.

Despite the lay and monastic preference for icon veneration, Pagoulatos (2008:27) notes that incorporating icons into the liturgical life of the church in Constantinople was difficult. Even in 11th century, some monasteries only carried cross and gospel codex in procession. Among laypeople, in contrast, “one can easily find icons that were prescribed [for liturgical use] in the typika of private monasteries founded by laymen since these patrons could impose the use of their favourite icon on the ceremonies of their monastery.” In those monasteries, the liturgical situation was somewhat different.

Belting (1980) reiterates that while the cathedral liturgy of the Hagia Sophia was ‘static’ until the 13th century, the monasteries of the capital developed “a rich corpus of new texts, rites, and even entire services.” The monastery of the Virgin Euergetis’ eleventh century typikon, for example, “introduces the celebration of Good Friday with a nocturnal ‘service of the Holy Passion’ which includes the reading of George of Nicomedia’s homily … and Romans Melodos’ kontakion ‘Come and let us praise Him who has been crucified for us.’ It concludes the celebration of the same day with another new service… which includes a lament or Kanon Threnodes of the Virgin, possibly Symeon Metaphrastes’ hymn ‘Thelon sou to plasma’ and also the famous burial song ‘The noble Joseph.’ Thus we find two new services, rich in mystagogical elements and full of psychological realism, the one contemplating Christ on the cross, the other the deposition, the lament, and the burial. The burial elements reappear in a third service… on Holy Saturday.” As the authors note, Saturday’s services do not seem to become important until after the thirteenth century.  (For a brief article on the origins of George of Nicomedia’s homily and the well attested hymnological tradition of Mary’s lament at the Cross, see Tsironis (1997).  George of Nicomedia:  Convention and Originality in the Homily on Good Friday.  Studia Patristica vol 30.  Available at )

The hymns and sermons thus brought together liturgically in the new eleventh century service for Good Friday were originally composed in the sixth century (Melodos), ninth century (Nicomedia), and latter half of the tenth century (Metaphrastes). It is interesting that the expansion of the liturgy first centres around Passion week, though given that the Eucharistic liturgy itself commemorates the Last Supper, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Christ, perhaps this coincidence of thematic augmentation is not so significant.

Panagoulatos relates the development of new services to new icons: “A fully developed artistic liturgy emerged out of a contest with iconoclasm and grew after the introduction of Palestinian, monastic elements into the liturgy of Constantinople [cf. Sevcenko, Taft].” (Panagoulatos 2008:24). New services need new icons, Belting agrees; or a single one which is abstract enough to encompass several services. One such icon, Belting suggests, was the purpose of the Akra Tapeinosis icon. Another is the Nymphios icon. Because the Nymphios icon is clearly linked to a specific liturgical service (or set of services), I will treat it first.

Now incorporated into the Constantinopolitan liturgy, the Nymphios (‘Bridegroom’) service is held in the evenings of the opening days of Passion Week. The icon associated with those services is particularly apt for our purposes (although it does not portray Christ with the wounds of Crucifixion). It roughly corresponds to the ‘Ecce Homo’ image in the West. Pagoulatos points out that “the present Byzantine Rite-Typikon, in which the service of the Bridegroom is contained, has been preserved in the eleventh or twelfth-century Typikon of the Euergetes [Evergetes] monastery in Constantinople, Codex 788 of the University Library in Athens” — the same typikon in which the Good Friday hymns are contained. That manuscript contains an eleventh century synthesis of Palestinian monastic and Constantinopolitan cathedral elements. It is the earliest textual evidence we have for the Nymphios service. “[A]nd thus it reflects the state of Byzantine liturgy after the end of Iconoclasm (843 CE) when the use of images was no longer in question and the Constantinopolitan and Palestinian liturgical elements were synthesized into one” (Pagoulatos 2008:24. He references Dmitrievskij (1965). Opisanie Liturgitseskich Rukopisej:vol 1:256-614, 543-546. Also Wellesz (1998). A History of Byzantine Music and Hymnography. A translation of the typikon can be found on Google books).

Panagoulatos argues that the particular form of the Nymphios icon originated in the 1100s, at the height of the Comnenian dynasty. He suggests that the icon “may be related to the iconographic type of the dead portrait of Christ”, in contrast to Professor Andreas Xyngopoulos, who “argues that the Nymphios icon where Christ is represented in a stand-up position wearing the purple garment and the thorny crown on his head is an iconographic type, which was influenced by the western type of Ecce Homo and was disseminated later in art (especially in the art of the Ionian islands) possibly through the seventeenth-century Cretan painter Ioannis Moschos.” (Pagoulatos 2008:23n24. See A. Xyngopoulos, Sxediasma istorias tes threskeutikes zografikes meta ten alosin, reprint (Athenai: e en Athenais archaiologeke etairia, 1999) 246-247 and plate 59.1. For more on the Bridegroom icon and matins see Taft, History of the Liturgy; and ). However, Anna Komnena references a Nymphios icon, though it could be the Akra Tapeinosis or ‘a sleeping boy of the Anapeson type, the two being interchangeable in their meaning'” (Belting 1980), so it is very possible that the Nymphios icon in use today in the Orthodox church does in fact predate the seventeenth century.

Regardless, the other icon emerging at this time and definitely used liturgically, is the portrait bust of the Man of Sorrows or Akra Tapeinosis (‘utter humiliation’, referencing Isaiah 53:8), of which the earliest surviving examples date from twelfth century Kastoria. “The dead figure seems to allude to a biographical moment, but does not make clear which specific moment it is alluding to. Since the figure, though represented dead, is shown upright but not nailed on the Cross, it cannot be connected with any known event in the [Gospels’] Passion narrative.” Belting suggests that the Shroud (latterly, of Turin) preserved in the Byzantine imperial palace may have “justified the creation of our icon; with time, the icon came to reflect a shift of emphasis [from the Crucifixion? in private or liturgical devotion?] to the burial proper.” Belting also references a mosaic icon for private use, of ca. 1300, which has ended up in Sta Croce in Rome to attest to that evolution. (Another early image survives in metalwork, preserved in Jerusalem, in which the Crucifixion and the two lamenting angels are more prominent than the burial – Belting 1980:12)

The aforementioned earliest icon of the Akra Tapeinosis which we have, from Kastoria, is actually double sided; on the reverse side is a sorrowful Virgin Hodegetria, holding an infant Christ. John Mauropos in the eleventh century calls the Virgin associated with the Akra Tapeinosis icon, ‘The Mother of Passion’ (i.e. the icon-type of the Virgin predates the Akra Tapeinosis). Belting brings out the associations between the two icons, and particularly the change in expression from a peaceful Hodegetria to a sorrowful Mother of Passion: “To understand this seeming paradox [of a usually serene Hodegetria being sorrowful] we must first connect her with her dead Son on the front of the panel, and second with the texts of Passion liturgy in which, when the Passion begins, the Virgin remembers the childhood of her Son.”

With regard to the Marian icons, which have a history of their own in relation to the Passion, Belting remarks, “the portrait icon [of the Virgin] invited empathy on the part of the beholder in that it embodied the partner who was to receive the ritual address of the community,” but also, in combination with the Virgin Eleousa icon, that “the protohumanist ethos lies in the Virgin’s eventual insight into the necessity of the Passion to achieve salvation. The soteriological argument was also intended to affect the beholder. It suggested an inner training or conversion to reason; the Virgin was to appear as a prototype of model behavior, of the spiritual catharsis of the religious ego.” The icon, in other words, functions as a model by which the person meditating upon the feelings and thinking of the portrayed saint can come to reach similar noetic consonance. As Belting remarks, “Like her companion images, the Eleousa is at once both an instrument and an object of mystagogical thinking. The ‘new interest in pathos and human feelings’ which was observed in twelfth century art in fact seems to have had deeper roots. A lay public, increasing in number, seems to have developed a new demand for religious and emotional experience to which art had to respond.” I will return to the emphasis on emotional religious experience below, with St Symeon the New Theologian.

As a small icon, though, the Akra Tapeinosis came to be used for private devotion, implying a use outside the monastic liturgy. When would a monastic spiritual father have recommended devotion to one icon versus another, and to what sorts of people, or in what personal spiritual circumstances? That is a question an anthropologist would want to know the answer to, or a social historian. Unfortunately, I don’t have the source material to answer that question for the twelfth century Byzantine commonwealth. Belting mentions an early thirteenth century reliquary from Georgia also shows a variation of the Man of Sorrows icon, and was meant for the private devotions of the Queen, Tamar. He also references a fourteenth century fresco in Pec, of St Demetrios in prison, holding a small icon of the Man of Sorrows. “Another aspect of private use is attested in funerals during which our icon was placed on the chest of the dead.” The icon, then, seems to be thematically related to contemplation on mortality, or specifically, the presence of life in death. To actually prove this meditative theme, however, I would need to quote from textual sources clearly associated with the icon; I do not have those resources available to me at the moment. In fact, however, Belting notes that the Akra Tapeinosis icon does get used as a substitution for crucifixion scenes, if a twelfth century Gospel book preserved in Petersburg is any evidence. The question I wonder is what does this equivalence imply? Why shift from the crucifixion proper to this scene, especially for more portable icons? Those questions will have to remain open for the moment, as I turn to examine the second element which shaped the forms of Byzantine devotion to the Passion, what I have termed ‘the Imperial programme’.

The Imperial Programme: Eucharist, Province, Capital

The Komnenian dynasty oversaw several synods and trials important for the theological development of the Church. Although scholars may tend to decry to trial of John Italos, the results of which strongly curtailed philosophical inquiry and theological scholarship, nevertheless, theological debate did continue, and under Imperial sponsorship. (In fact, Clucas (1981) argues that the trial of John Italos was politically motivated in part to establish Alexios I’s credentials among the monastic party at the time, securing the emperor’s orthodox credentials.)

Among the issues debated was the sacrifice of the Eucharist. To whom was it offered? The Trinity as a whole? The hypostasis of the Father alone? The question of the Eucharist may have come to the fore during these centuries for two very different reasons. First was the continued existence of iconoclast groups who claimed that only the Eucharist was a true icon; that is, the sacrifice of the liturgy made present the reality of Jesus. (For interested readers, Kazhdan and Epstein 1985:12-13 discuss in greater detail the competition between icons and communion in the ninth and tenth centuries – cf. Grolimund 2005). Second was ongoing disagreements with the practises of the Latin-rite, which used unleavened bread. Given that the Byzantine territories included parts of Sicily and Southern Italy, which, while they may or may not have used leavened bread, were certainly in contact with neighbouring regions which used unleavened bread for the Eucharist. Two Councils, of 1156 and 1157, treated the custom of azymes (unleavened bread). In addition to theological-legal responses, iconography was deployed to popularise correct understanding of the position taken by the Imperial administration on the matter of the Eucharist.

The theme of the Eucharist, particularly as it intersects with the Passion of Christ is taken up in the iconography of the period, particularly in the Imperially-connected church of St Panteleimon in Nerezi (currently in the Slavic Republic of Macedonia). The fresco cycles of that church, one of the few remaining from the Comneni dynasty, brings together the themes of the death and burial of Christ, the offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice to the whole Trinity, and the role of hymnographers as guardians of Orthodoxy and the tomb of Christ. Yet the movement between Passion and Eucharist also progressed along more material lines, as images embroidered on the aer, or cloth which covered the Eucharistic elements, gets transferred to iconography, and made available for public devotion.

The connexion of Passion and Eucharist at Nerezi is not just coincidental with the source of the divine liturgy in the Last Supper and Crucifixion, however. The frescoes also reference the Imperial efforts at securing the material remains of the Passion and bringing them to the Capital, where they were housed in the Imperial palace, and displayed for public veneration. As already mentioned, some of these relics bore images reportedly imprinted by Christ himself, and the frescoes at Nerezi, like the icons designed for private devotion, reproduce those relics in iconographic form.  The resulting associations tie together the themes of iconodoule orthodoxy, Eucharist, Passion, and Imperium.


In a chapter titled ‘Lay piety at Byzantium: beliefs and customs’, Angold mentions that the Eucharist was received only about once a year by laypeople, perhaps due to ‘the awe invested in’ the divine mystery (Angold 1995:441). In contrast, Kazhdan and Epstien reference an epistolary exchange between a hermit and his spiritual father concerning how the Eucharist could be celebrated by the hermit on his own, allowing him to receive communion without church or priest (Kazhdan and Epstien 1985:89). Both trends, of infrequency and distance in public practice on the one hand, and intimacy and autonomy in individual practice, are indicative of the eleventh and twelfth century trend towards spiritual needs being filled in ways other than the public liturgy of the Church. (To be sure, one can attend the divine liturgy and derive spiritual nourishment from it without necessarily receiving the Eucharist; my point is that piety found at the least, additional outlets for devotion.)

The success of the iconodules (those who supported the veneration of icons as orthodox), whose strength had historically lain and continued to lay with monastics, combined with the continued existence (or renewed appearance) of small heterodox groups who challenged iconodule hegemony throughout Anatolia and the Balkans, to lead orthodox Byzantine theologians to articulate religious ideas along new lines in the Comnenian period. The newly-secured role of the icon acted as a point of consolidation for and the litmus test of the Orthodoxy of such ideas. Thus, while the layperson may not receive the Eucharist more than once a year in these two centuries, it should seem no accident that the Melismos icon, which portrays the Eucharist as Christ-child within the Eucharistic chalice, was first written in this period (Kazhdan and Epstein 1985:97n58). Belting (1980) notes the Melismos icon (child in cup) first appears around 1192 in Kurbinovo, and does not appear in Nerezi (frescoed around 1162), where the Hetoimasia occupies its place. (The Hetoimasia is a representation of God’s throne, often with either the Gospel book or, in the twelfth century, the instruments of the Passion, and with a dove. The whole implies the reign of the Holy Trinity, the image of the hypostasis of the Father unable to be portrayed as the Father was not incarnate as a human.) Theologically, the icon of the Christ-child in the Eucharistic cup is a perfect example of co-opting the heterodox notion that only the Eucharist could be a true icon; but it could perhaps function as well to subvert iconodule claims by cleverly shifting the direction of iconographic contemplation away from the written image and back towards the divine mystery at the altar (Kazhdan and Epstein 1985:97n58; cf Ouspensky vol 2:222).

The Melismos makes the host visible as a child. Another icon, the Epitaphios, makes the Eucharist visible as the dead body of Christ. Belting argues that the Epitaphios makes its way from amnos aer, seen during the Great Entrance after the recitation of the Creed, to the Passion ritual of Holy Week, where it can represent the Eucharistic host it both displays and conceals (protects). Belting sees a similar method to the Threnos icon (see below) at work in the Epitaphios-Amnos which covers the gifts at the altar (“Amnos” = “sacrificed lamb”). On these cloths, Christ’s body is portrayed as laid out for burial, ready to be covered by a burial shroud — not unlike the gifts at the altar awaiting consecration. At that moment, Belting reminds us, “Eucharistic symbolism is combined with Passion realism.” Both images, the Melismos and Epitaphios icons, seem to have been introduced around the same time, in the twelfth century, as an enamel preserved in Petersburg and a fresco in Samari (Messenia) attest. The enamel contains the phrase ‘Christ is set forth and has a share with God/ XC prokeitai ka metexetai Theo”, which Belting sees as having Eucharistic overtones (Belting 1980:13), while the fresco quotes John 6:56 (‘He who eats my flesh…’). Markov Manastir, decorated around 1375, actually contains a fresco which combines both images.

(The particular element of processing with the epitaphios seems to have become popularised during the Comnenian period. (Cf Belting 1980-81 and Belting 1990:90-129, esp 120 — yet he also indicates that he transfer of the epitaphios from the Great Entrance to the Passion ritual seems to have occurred in the fourteenth century, when the Gospel book was covered by the aer in the Great Saturday procession. See also Panagoulatos, who refers to Demetrios Pallas, “Passion und Bestattung Christi in Byzanz. Der Ritus-das Bild”, Miscellanea Byzantina Monacensia, 2, 1965:233ff.)

The Nymphios and Akra Tapeinosis icons may also have taken an initial association from the Eucharist. The Akra Tapeinosis seems to have originated from the image embroidered on the aër, the covering over the gifts on the altar. Although several images were used for that covering, most commonly, they portrayed the burial or deposition of Jesus’ body after the crucifixion. The epitaphios used in the Lamentations procession for the Matins of Holy Saturday (held in anticipation on Friday nights today), is an example of that sort of image.

Earlier, I mentioned the icon of the Mother of Passion on the reverse of the Kastoria Akra Tapeinosis. Later images of the Virgin come to show her flanked by two angels holding instruments of the Passion (in the Latin Church this Virgin of the Passion type becomes known as Our Lady of Perpetual Help); in a Novgorod icon of the twelfth century, the obverse of such an icon, however, portrays the Mandylion, the Veil of Veronica. Altogether, “the group of the Mother and Child and the Cross become interchangeable features, the one emphasizing the sacrificial lamb, the other the sacrificial altar…” (Belting 1980:10). Again, even certain icons of the Virgin Mother as she contemplates the eventual Passion and Death of her Son, thereby come to have Eucharistic overtones.


Eucharist, Passion, and Liturgy come together in the iconographic programme of the Komnenian era church of St Pantaleimon in Nerezi. “Considering that not a single ensemble of Komnenian wall paintings has survived to the present in Constantinople itself, the frescoes at Nerezi are of especial importance,” writes Sinkevic in her 1996 article on the origins and purpose of the frescoes. (Other examples of Macedonian regional styles from the period are the church of Hosios David in Thessaloníki and Church of the Transfiguration at Chortiatis near Thessaloníki (Sinkevic 1996:35).)

The church, according to its inscription, was decorated at the expense of Alexios Angelos, cousin of the emperor Manuel I Komnenos (1143- 1180), and son of Theodora, the youngest daughter of Alexios I Komnenos (1081 – 1118). He was present at the 1166 Council of Constantinople (which treated a debate concerning the Eucharistic sacrifice). Adrian-John Komnenos, cousin to emperor Manuel I, was archbishop of Ohrid, nearby Nerezi. Other imperial relatives were in the region, and Manuel I, seeking to secure his influence of the area, often visited Skopje; the monastery at Nerezi would have provided a safe haven for the emperor to visit, according to Sinkevic’s research.

As a Comnenian foundation, the frescoes reflect a more cosmopolitan style, and influenced later church decor in area (Virgin Eleousa at Veljusa, Hagios Nikolaos Kasnitzi in Kastoria). The plan of the frescoes follows a regular, organised pattern, but is important as the first example of grouping saints according to their ‘genre’: warrior, monastic, martyr, hymnographer. The devotional execution of the iconographic plan allowed Alexios Angelos to publicly state his own position in the ideological battle. “The distinguished status of the saints at Nerezi is in direct opposition to the politics of Manuel I and the writings of the twelfth-century hagiographers. Both Manuel I and the contemporary writers displayed a great skepticism and questioned the whole institution of the holy man. … However, judging by the cycle at Nerezi, the saints preserved their importance and continued to act as a powerful vehicle in the economy of salvation in the minds of Byzantine aristocrats” (Sinkevic 1996).

In addition, one icon is quite new. A procession of bishops celebrating the Eucharist and portrayed carrying liturgical scrolls are arranged so that they are inclined and acknowledging the Hetoimasia at the centre of the composition. The Hetoimasia, as I mentioned above, is an “image of the prepared throne, [which] symbolises the Holy Trinity, with the Gospel book and cross surmounted by a crown of thorns, referring to the presence of Christ, and the dove representing the Holy Spirit.” The ensemble reflects the theological debates held in councils at Constantinople from 1156 – 1176 over the Eucharistic sacrifice, which, they ultimately decided, is offered to the Holy Trinity, “inseparable and divine” (Sinkevic 1996:37). I would draw particular attention not only to the use of iconography to promote a particular theological-political position, but specifically to the presence of the Crown of Thorns, an image not only associated with the physical capacity of Christ who suffered as a human, but also an image of a relic associated with the Passion, protected by the Imperial family in the Capital.

If we turn to less politicised icons of the Passion present on the walls of the foundation, special attention should be paid to two in particular: the Descent from the Cross and the Threnos. In the Descent, Christ’s face lays against the Virgin’s cheek as he is being taken down. The intensity of the moment is conveyed through very bold facial expressions which focus attention on the physical suffering of Christ, and Mary as Virgin of the Eleousa.

In the Threnos (Lamentation of the Virgin over the dead body of Christ) composition, Christ is laid out on the earth, his mother cradling his head, John stretched out and over him. Angels offer their garments to the group (perhaps as burial wrappings). The Thenos icon, of course, is a new narrative subject for iconography. Belting remarks that the Threnos “purports to be a biblical occurrence but, in fact, is the product of hymnographical and homiletic rhetoric, which invented the details of the kissing and embracing and even introduced the scene as such into the religious experience of the Middle ages,” beginning at least as early as the ninth century, when similar imagery is reflected in a homily by George of Nicomedia (Belting references Weitzmann 1961, ‘The Origin of the Threnos’ and Maguire 1977, ‘The depiction of Sorrow in Middle Byzantine Art”. Cf Cormack 1975, “Painting after Iconoclasm”). The homily by George of Nicomedia, as already noted, “served as the lesson on Good Friday, at least from the eleventh century onward, in small monastic circles, which may also have commissioned the painted Threnos” (Belting 1980). The new icon would therefore pair itself with ‘a newly introduced threnos office which offered the religious experience that also become the function of the image.” The threnos icon “was to become one of the favorite subjects and perfect realizations of a new language of church art in the twelfth century. Not only did it use a language borrowed from that of liturgy; it owed its very existence to a new way of staging the mysteries which the liturgy developed, beginning with the eleventh century. It is here [in the Threnos icon] that we have a glimpse of the spirit of the time…” (Belting 1980:3). (A very evocative Threnos appears again at Vatopedi, on Athos, in the south, upper register inside the porch of the katholikon, but I don’t have the dates for that fresco).

Apropos to the association of the icons with the offices to which they pertain, beneath the frescoes of the passion are icons of hymnographers: they whose writings gave substance to the offices for which these new icons were written. Babic identifies these saints: St John of Damascus (d. 749), St Kosmas of Maiouma (d. 752), St Theodore of Stoudios (d.826), St Theophanes Graptos (d. 845), and St Joseph of Sicily (d. 886). All are iconodoule hymnographers and theologians of the previous dynasty. We have already has reason to mention hymnography in association with the creation of new icons for liturgical use. Perhaps the presence of these hymnographers in close association with the Passion cycle are meant to remind the fellow worshipper of the sources of Christian faith and revelation? Their position beneath the Passion scenes would seem to indicate they are the guardians of the tomb of Christ, whose presence is invoked by the Eucharistic liturgy through the hymns they composed in defence of orthodoxy. (Sinkevic has indicated she is writing an article on the relation between the snippets of hymns held in the hymnographers’ hands and the passion narratives above, but I have been unable to locate that article. However, see N.P. Sevcenko, “The five hymnographers at Nerezi”, Palaeoslavica 10 (2002), 55 – 68. Cf. Ovcharova (2004). “Images of the Holy Hymnographers in the Iconographical Programme of the Church of St Panteleemon in Nerezi, Macedonia (1164).” Al-Masaq. Vol 16, No 1:131-146.)

Because the themes of the Passion are so prominent in the iconographic narrative of Nerezi, Sinkevic suggests that Alexios Angelos intended to be buried there. The Passion motifs are thus, in Sinkevic’s view, funerary in nature. In fact, it seems more plausible that Sinkevic views the church as a burial site because an arcosolium is located in a chapel in the NW chapel, and the rest of the narrative interpretation is based around the presence of an arcosolium, which could have been prepared for the imperial patron, or could have been prepared to house relics of a holy person; we don’t actually know. Whether frescoes are present in the arcosolium is neither examined nor mentioned. Sinkevic’s suggestion that the Passion cycle constitutes the church as funerary monument is not supported by further arguments in its favour; instead, Sinkevic develops the theme of intercession based on the portrayal of the church’s patron saint, Panteleimon (like Ss. Cosmas and Damian, one of the physician-saints).

At Nerezi, if intercession is the overall theme, I would suggest a better reading than Passion-as-Funereal-Inscription is the idea of Christ-who-heals through the Passion, which makes possible (though not of necessity) the Eucharistic sacrifice — and the medical work of St Pantaleimon. Sinkevic confirms that the narrative scenes of Christ’s life “are spatially related to the scenes which either anticipate or portray his sacrificial death” (Sinkevic 1996:38). (This is not too distant from Latin devotion to the Passion, which also roots itself in Eucharistic devotion.) As such, the church may also associate itself with the well-known efforts of the Komneni to portray themselves as the guardians of the relics of Christ’s passion. It would not be far-fetched to imagine an encomium about how the numinous emperor graces the church with his presence, conveying in his sanctified person that holiness conveyed by proximity to the holy relics of our Lord’s passion and death, relics whose presence are evoked in the emperor’s absence through the iconographic programme of the church. However, a more sound thesis would refer to the burial slab of Christ, which Alexios Angelos’ cousin, the emperor Manuel, brought from Ephesos.

Imperial Relic Collecting.

Beginning with Alexios I, the imperial dynasty secured various relics associated with the Passion and Death of Jesus. The initial impetus for imperial interest in the Passion may have been stimulated in part by Constantine IX Monomachos (d.1055), who had funded the rebuilding of the Church of the Anastasis (or Holy Sepulchre) beginning in 1042. (The church had been mostly destroyed by the Fatimids under Caliph al-Hakim (bi-Amr Allah) in 1009.) However, as Alexios I had appealed to Pope Urban II to launch a crusade for the recapture or protection of Christians in the Holy Land, it cannot be said that the Comnenian dynasty simply followed in Constantine IX’s footsteps; rather, they augmented that interest by securing for themselves those items which could be transported from the Holy Land to Constantinople, where they could be ‘safe’. By means of collecting relics from Jerusalem, the imperial dynasty was able to serve at least two political interests at once: one, clerical-elite and associated with the imperial cathedral of Hagio Sophia, and two, lay, whose individualistic piety was becoming more and more centred on the humanity of Christ.

With relics brought from the historical Jerusalem, the emperors were able to extend a liturgical motif, most pronounced in descriptions of the liturgy sung in the cathedral of Hagia Sophia, which proclaimed Constantinople a Holy City. With the relics of Christ contained within its walls, those hymnographic descriptions were now woven into the physical fabric of the capital city. The eleventh century chapel in Boukeleon had already became the repository for relics of the True Cross and the Mandylion (the image of Christ’s face on Veronica’s cloth), which came to the City in 944 CE. Now, it was to contain the tunic woven without seams, the crown of thorns, the lance of Longinus, and a phial of blood from Jesus’ crucifixion, in addition to the robe of the Virgin and the head of John the Baptist. The Church of Holy Apostles preserved the pillar against which Jesus was scourged. Finally, the slab on which Jesus was laid after the crucifixion was kept in the Church of Pantokrator, which Manuel I, grandson of Alexios I, met upon its arrival in the City (Harris 2003:11). Kazhdan and Epstein (1985:96) quote the inscription engraved on the slab:

“Our lord Emperor, Manuel, re-enacts the resolve of the Disciple as he bears on his shoulders that stone upon which the Lord’s body was placed and prepared for burial in a winding sheet. He lifts it up announcing in advance his own burial, that in death he may be buried together with the Crucified One and may arise together with our buried Lord…”

As the authors note, “Manuel I met the stone of Christ’s unction at the Boukoleon harbour of the Great Palace when it was brought from Ephesus to Constantinople and carried it on his shoulders to the Chapel of the Virgin of Pharos. This was less a penance than an identification with Joseph of Arimathea, at least according to an inscription reportedly on the slab.”(ref. C. Mango (1969), ‘Notes on Byzantine Monuments’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 23-24.) For my purposes, it indicates the association of death as the passage through which all humans are to pass, and the hope of resurrection in Christ. In other words, the devotion to the Passion is focused on the transformation of the believer after death, just as in life, he or she sought to imitate the disciples who followed Christ.

The gathered relics of Christ’s Passion constituted Constantinople as a second Jerusalem, according to the historian Harris’ argument in Byzantium and the Crusades. The emphasis at the time was, in fact, on the material mementoes of the Passion; the Ressurection seems to have been only a minor current of devotion at the time. The Comenenian emphasis on the Passion contrasts strongly with the idea put forward by polemicists who in later centuries strove to differentiate Orthodoxy from Catholicism by proclaiming Orthodoxy’s emphasis on the Resurrection, in distinction to Catholicism’s mis-emphasis on a Passion without culmination in the Harrowing of Hell and triumph of the Third Day.

Through such means as relic collecting, Angold (1995:71) asserts that Alexios I put himself and his family “at the forefront of a new wave of lay piety… In keeping with the monastic ideal it was a piety that concentrated on the humanity of Christ and the humiliations he had endured for [humanity’s] salvation… God had humiliated himself for Mankind. In return it was the emperor’s duty to protect his flock for whom he had been made man, suffered in the flesh, poured out his own blood and suffered a shameful death. These were sentiments that fitted very well with the new currents of monastic piety with their emphasis on the Passion of Christ. They would find pictorial expression on images such as the Lamentation [Threnos] and the ‘Man of Sorrows’ or ‘Akra Tapeinosis.'” Images associated with these relics — e.g. the Mandylion (Veronica) and Epitaphios — proliferated (Kazhdan and Epstien 1985:96).

It seems unsurprising that those two relics, the Mandylion and the Shroud (of Turin), housed in the Boukeleon chapel were not only relics but more to the point, relics that were also images, imprinted at the time of Jesus’ passion or burial. They thus occupy a liminal space, serving as both icon and relic. They served an iconodoule purpose as well, being image and relic, advancing the iconodoule argument that God can be portrayed because he was made portrayable through becoming flesh. Related to a relic preserved in the Palace, the Mandylion, for example, was a ‘true likeness of the Savior’s face, [and] was taken as factual proof of the reality of Christ’s incarnation” (Kazhdan and Epstien 1985:96). Icons portraying the ‘icon not made by hands’ could thus find space among those who doubted the orthodoxy of other icons.

The relationship between imperial and private devotion, I would suggest, was mediated through the creation of specific icons relating to images present on relics of the Passion (Kazhdan and Epstein 1985:97). The Akra Tapeinosis is one example. The Nymphios icon, which portrays Jesus as he emerged after being scourged at the pillar housed in the Boukelion, is another. The Mandylion as well may have been used in Passion rituals, according to Belting (1980:10). The Mandylion icon mentioned earlier, housed in Novgorod, seems to reflect an early twelfth century Byzantine model. The reverse of the Novgorod image, Belting notes, portrays the relic of the True Cross used in the liturgy of Hagia Sophia. “The icon, in fact, reproduces two different cult or relic images, namely, the Holy Face and the holy ‘Cross of the Symbols of the Passion'” (Belting 1980:10). That is, the Novgorod icon reproduces the two icons most amenable to an iconoclast sensibility. Ultimately, the feast of the Mandilion was abolished around 1100, due to the possibly heterodox use Leo of Chalcedon made of its kanon. Akathists to it still do survive, however.

Icons of the relics of the Passion would find a role in private devotion and public procession, ‘portable relics’ as it were, through which the faithful could venerate the reality of the relics which were materially associated with the one whose imaged they portrayed. After the sack of Constantinople by Venice in 1204, and the looting of its relics, all that the Byzantine Commonwealth had left were the images of those relics it formerly housed. Before then, however, “the cult objects proper, the materialized symbols of the mysteries of the faith, had not only stimulated liturgical vision but also inspired artistic creation to match the new patterns and thoughts of the liturgy” (I cannot relocate the source of this quote; pos Belting 1980 or Kazhdan and Epstien 1985). After the end of the Latin occupation of Constantinople, these icons moved from the private and monastic spheres of devotion and became incorporated into the public liturgy as we know it today.

The Holy Man and Hagiographers in the Twelfth Century

During the eleventh and twelfth centuries a good deal of devotional literature was produced for consumption by the middle class of traders and bureaucrats. The period saw Isaac the Syrian’s writings translated from Syriac into Greek, the composition of Philotheos of Sinai’s works on the Jesus prayer, and was the same period when Elias Ekdikos (Ecdicos) was active, leading Ouspensky at least, to characterise the period as a ‘renaissance in spiritual life’ (Ouspensky vol 2:227). This literature focused on individual experience of the divine. It was not opposed to the sacraments of the Church, nor to the established hierarchy, and thus was not banned by the clergy of the Great Church. However, in concert with elite scepticism of outwards signs of holiness, it did serve to turn devotion inward, or at best, allow the expression of such devotion only in front of one’s spiritual father.

Even men recognised by later ages as holy were could be viewed unfavourably during the eleventh century. By far the most illustrious individual theologian living in this period was St Symeon the New Theologian. His thought epitomises the streak of autonomy of the age, which conflicted with the established hierarchy inherited from the Macedonian dynasty. (This autonomy should not be confused with the spiritual vice of egoism, though few seem to have examined the shadowy border between the two).

Symeon emphasised the necessity of feeling the presence of the Holy Spirit within the believer’s own body. It was only after such experiences himself, which he had while working in the Imperial administration, that he came to embrace the monastic life. Kazhdan and Epstein (1985:92) summarise the distinctive individuality of Symeon’s spiritual ‘system’ as follows: “The only effective means [to salvation, for Symeon] was ultimate obedience or self-abasement before Almighty God, the internal enthusiasm that results in seeing the divine light. For Symeon, the believer stood alone before God in the universe, before the emperor in society, and before the spiritual father in the monastery… Symeon’s search for individual salvation may be seen as a reaction against tenth-century institutionalization and order. it was quite natural that he tried to substitute the emotional and spiritual exhilaration of self-discipline for the cold organization of the Byzantine church. It was just as natural for the ecclesiastical establishment to oppose this form of individualism, whereby people related directly to God. The hierarchy attacked Symeon exactly where his theology was most personalized, in the ‘heretical’ veneration of his friend and monastic master, Symeon Eulabes.”

Not only could the icon be used to further doctrinal positions, as mentioned above, but Morris (1996:89), along with many other scholars, has noted that the eminence of a monastic founder was measured not only by his or her inclusion in Synaxaria beyond his locale, but also by the creation of an icon in her or his honour. In fact, it is on just such a point that Symeon the New Theologian was reprimanded, as he had created an unauthorised icon of his spiritual father (also called Symeon).

For my purposes, the incident illustrates that in Byzantium, the deification or transfiguration of an ascetic in Christ is exemplified not so much physically (although relics left by holy persons played and continue to play an important role, and the role of relics in the iconoclast struggle has yet to be written), but by his externalised ability to be ’embodied’ in a devotionally used icon. (For the idea of the icon and transfiguration in Christ’s incarnation, and thus also deification achieved by the saint portrayed in an icon, see Ouspensky vol 1:157-160.) That trend in spirituality, of deification into a written icon, has continued into the early twenty-first century, as I experienced while residing in the Middle East. The abbot of one monastery in Lebanon related to me the story of when he was younger, painting an icon, and his spiritual father asked him to make an icon of a particular saint, whose name that abbot shared. The abbot at first thought the spiritual father meant he was to write an icon on a prepared board of wood; only later did he realise that the spiritual father was asking that the abbot turn himself into an icon, writing it with his life and actions.

In the twelfth century, however, the literati, in fact, seemed more fond of scathing attacks on men who would make claims to holiness. Kazhdan and Epstien reference Nicholas of Methone’s hagiography of St Meletios of Myoupolis. St Meletios was once disparaged in front of the emperor by a monk who had been “seduced by the desire for human glory and assumed a mock ascetic life… Using as his weapon ‘the poverty of spirit’, [the false monk] presented himself as a simple hermit, illiterate and unaware of sophisticated monastic doctrine.” It would be interesting to explore this hagiography in greater depth, to see how presentations of Francis’ poverty were received; certainly later Franciscans living in the Capital concerned the Palaiologan dynasty, for they and the people were attracted to the evident sincerity of the Franciscan poverty. In the twelfth century, however, “the literati not only mocked the fanatic and debunked his pretensions, they also tended to disdain hagiography as a literary genre. Twelfth-century hagiographic writing is remarkably meager, while derisory commentary is surprisingly rich” (Kazhdan and Epstein 1985:95).

Several articles and monographs have been written on the status of the holy man (or woman) in 12th century Byzantium, and I feel no need to go into detail here. Important for my argument is the emphasis on interior devotion which manifests in transformation after death, either in the form of an icon which brings the presence of the individual’s holiness into contact with devotees, or through the leaving behind of relics.

(The interested reader can see Magdalinio 1983, “The Byzantine Holy Man in the Twelfth Century”, The Byzantine Saint. University of Birmingham Fourteenth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, pp 51 – 65; Paschalidis (????) “The Hagiography of the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries.” Ashgate Research Companion: 143 – 160; and Galatariotou (1991). The making of a Saint. The life, times and sanctification of Neophytos the Recluse. Cambridge University Press.)


The relationship between devotion to relics and to icons has not been properly explored in the literature, yet we know relics were, and remain, important indicators of sanctity in the Orthodox Church. Aside from relics associated with the Passion, those which were part of or had come in contact with saints were also valued. In the twelfth century, “pietism was reflected in the increasing popularity of relics. Christopher of Mytilene’s description [no. 114] of a relic collector indicates not only how avidly holy items were sought, but also in what disdain the practice was held by the well educated: he censured the foolishness of the monk Andrew, who was consumed with a passion for relics. Andrew had managed to collect ten hands of the martyr Prokopios, fifteen jaws of St Theodora, eight legs of St Nestor, four heads of St George, five breasts of St Barbara, twelve forearms of St Demetrios, and twenty hips of St Panteleimon” (Kazhdan and Epstein 1985:95f).

To understand the place of relics, one must understand what they opposed. Angold (1995:443) relates three characters from the medieval Byzantine epic Diogenes Akritis, a trinity of Charos, Death, and Hades. Charos ferries humans away from life, and is opposed by Love (as a psychopomp, he is sometimes identified with the archangel Michael); Hades rules over the dead; and Death, of course, ends human life. In the words of the epic, they are “these three man-killers, the three unpitying… the young they spare not, nor respect the old, nor fear the strong, nor honour the wealthy, beauties they pity not, but turn to dust, and all things work to mud and stinking ash.” (From Diogenes Akritis. Grot VIII:270-276.)

It would be well to remember the hymns and sermon from the Liturgy of the Resurrection, in which Hades, as ruler of the kingdom of the dead, is ‘vexed’ at Jesus’ entrance into his kingdom, Life had entered the kingdom of death. Saints likewise were victorious over these enemies of humankind. They were divinised and transformed through their close relationship to Christ. (Whether the transformation was a result of, or as a reward for, their combats is beside the point). That holiness inhered in their physical bodies, with the result that “relics were believed to endow proximity to the Godhead” (Kazhdan and Epstein 1985:96). In this we see Byzantine ideas of physical transformation come not so much through imitation of the Passion’s sufferings so much as through death, the natural end of all humans, and through the mystery of the Harrowing of Hades which brought about the Resurrection. Although Latin polemicists might argue that Byzantines focus too much on the Light of Tabor (seeing that as transformative) and do not approach Golgotha, or pass over it briefly in favour of the Resurrection, this is too simplistic. Certainly, it does not reflect themes present in Byzantine literature during the Comnenian period.

Just as in the twelfth, so also In the twenty-first century, relics remain an indicator of sainthood. In fact, one hermit I spoke with on Athos posed the question to me: What is a saint? A saint, he said, is someone who leaves behind relics. On Athos, as throughout the Orthodox world, whether in Syria and Lebanon or Russia and Romania, relics are known by their incorruptibility, their pleasing fragrance, the occasional myrrh which flows from them, the miracles associated with them. On Athos, an additional miracle occurs with those who die there: their bodies do not experience rigour mortis, but remain pliable, as in life.

In part, the Byzantine emphasis on post-mortem transfiguration is one way around the twelfth century scepticism regarding claims to holiness when applied to living persons. A living person is susceptible to error, sin, or outright hypocrisy. Indeed, stories abound of men who were thought to be holy, but whose true spiritual state was only revealed after death, when their corpses putrified quickly, raising a stench few could stomach, while men whose holiness had been unknown during life were discovered only after death, when their bones exuded myrrh or gave off a sweet fragrance. (This tradition is not unknown in the Latin rite: one devil’s advocate has argued against the holiness of Pope Pius IX because his body decayed so quickly that a Swiss guard standing watch nearly fainted. Conversely, the assessment by an embalmer that the body of Pope John Paul II had been barely touched up for his funeral was used to suggest something numinous about this person for whom crowds called he be declared ‘santo subito’.)

It is an interesting question: the goal of human life is deification or divinisation (theosis), a goal possible while living, if we are to take sainthood seriously; and yet despite a saint’s behaviour in life, his or her theosis is really only known after death. The theology of post-mortem transfiguration comes head to head with the idea of a living metamorphosis (with attendant behaviour appropriate to that metamorphosis) in the twelfth century, when both positions were popularly held, before East and West decided in favour of one or the other possibility.

Although Francis’ biographers, both early and late, go to some lengths to stress Francis’ perfect imitation of Christ’s life on earth, for which the stigmata were a ‘seal’, they did not neglect to record post-mortem miracles which would further confirm his holiness. The transformation of Francis’ body thus continued after Francis’ death. Thomas of Celano records that the brethren saw his corpse transfigured: “There appeared in him in fact the form of the cross and passion of the spotless lamb who washed away the sins of the world, while he seemed as though lately taken down from the cross… and they beheld his skin glittering with whiteness,… and his other members [limbs] had become soft and pliant like those of an innocent child.” Like the monks who die on Mt Athos, Francis suffered no rigor mortis. The stigmata, which Francis took pains to conceal, were then examined: “Not the prints of nails but the nails themselves formed out of his flesh and retaining the blackness of iron” were discovered. One of the disciples kissed the right side, “in whose wound a solemn memorial was enacting of Him who, shedding forth blood and water together from that same part, reconciled the world to the Father.” (Note the similarity of devotion expressed by the North European mystics, of associating the wounds of Christ with the actions which they accomplished in bridging the divide between the mortal human race and the deathless Godhead.) Thomas relates that for the disciples, the sight of the stigmata was one of joy, not grief.

For Thomas of Celano, the stigmata are a form not only of Imitatio Christi, but also, and more clearly, of Transformatio: “From the time when true love of Christ had first ‘changed’ the lover [Francis] ‘into the same image’ [of Love, Christ], he concealed and hid that treasure [the stigmata]” (Thomas of Celano, First Life, Chapter 93). Having a different theology of both the icon and divinisation, and thus what it means to be an icon of Christ, Latin writers stress principally the similarity and union with God as represented by the Stigmata. An icon may convey a relationship between its prototype and the devotee’s actions towards it; here also, the stigmata conveyed for Latin Christians the idea of relationship to Christ in all its transformative capacity. In this regard, Thomas even references the vision of a fellow Franciscan to impress upon the reader to understand the extent of Francis’ transformation in Christ, this time drawing upon a post-mortem account of Francis: Once, a certain brother of the order had a vision of Francis, but could not distinguish whether it was Francis or Christ whom he beheld; “It seemed to the brother… that the person of Christ and of Saint Francis was one.” As Thomas comments, “He who cleaves to God becomes one spirit with him and God Himself shall be all in all.” (A conscious allusion to Francis’ favourite prayer, ‘Deus meus et omnes’.)

* * * Next Post: Passion Devotion in the Latin Kingdoms * * *

Why Stigmata?: St Francis, Stigmata, and Polemic in the Orthodox Church (Part 5)

Discussion of Allied Questions:  Why Stigmata?

Having addressed the sources which pertain to Francis’ reception of the stigmata, and having looked at some of the contemplative and meditative techniques common to the Latin west of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, we then addressed the question of the Seraph and the meanings associated with angels held by Christians of Francis’ time. With that initial groundwork, we can turn to the question of the stigmata themselves (their meaning at the time, their use by later writers, and the meanings which have emerged for us today as a result of that use).

It is important to first contextualise the word or concept of stigmata historically. How the word was used prior to Francis’ time may shed light on the context in which Francis’ contemporaries applied the term to the marks Francis bore. By looking at antecedent examples of what were called stigmata, we can better discern what was new and different about Francis’ stigmata and what similarities may link Francis to his predecessors. What were Francis’ stigmata, and what were they not? Were they actually part of an older, larger tradition? How did the symbol and meaning of the word ‘stigmata’ change as a result of Francis’ experience, or more specifically, through the portrayal of Francis experience by his hagiographers?

After this brief historical foray, a look at how Francis’ stigmata were situated devotionally among his contemporaries is in order. How do the stigmata, and specifically, how does a person miraculously imprinted with them, fit into ideas about the wounds of Christ, the body of Christ, and the imitation of Christ, all devotions popular among Christians — to an extent both Eastern and Western — of the time? Although the focus is predominately on West European experience, we must take account that twelfth century Latin Christians were also very much aware of their ongoing political connexion to the Crusader kingdoms of Outre-Mer, and the liturgical changes in both Byzantium and the West flowing from that association. One liturgical change in Byzantium which slightly predates the Crusader period (and predates the Latin occupation of Constantinople by about a century) is Byzantine devotion to the icon of Christ’s deposition; this devotion became increasingly assimilated to, even as it expanded upon, earlier devotion to the Cross.

Keeping in mind these two analyses, the larger Latin tradition of naming something ‘stigmata’ and the liturgically influenced spirituality of the Cross, a comparison of the Latin ecology of religious symbols with Byzantine devotional forms undergoing changes in the eleventh and twelfth centuries can be fruitfully undertaken. The purpose of uncovering similarities and differences between East Roman and Italian City State spirituality is to discover why stigmata appeared or ‘made sense’ in the West but not in the East, and rests on the fundamental theorem that a miracle of holiness only occurs in a context in which it can be interpreted as such without doing violence to the preceding tradition. (That thesis was developed in Abbasid period Baghdad to facilitate ongoing Muslim, Christian, and Jewish inter-religious debates; and belongs more properly to the theology of revelation, which I will hopefully explore in a later post. For the same reason, I will not address the question of deceptive or delusional miracles, which adds the question of discernment to an exploration of the theology of revelation.)

What, then, was similar in both the East Roman Empire and the Italian City States, in terms of religious expression and symbolism? Would Francis’ stigmata have been understood in the Byzantium of the Comneni [dates], or is the phenomenon of stigmatism confined to the West for reasons of prior tradition and later devotional elaboration?

Understanding Francis’ stigmata as both unique and, from a thirteenfth-century Latin perspective, a miracle of holiness forms the final portion of this post. What were the subsequent Latin interpretations of Francis’ stigmata? How were they brought into the theological tradition of the West? How do these medieval Latin interpretations relate to Byzantine models of spirituality and holiness from the twelfth century through the close of the Palaiologan dynasty? Can a certain rapprochement with Byzantine spirituality and theology of today be considered, or is the repudiation evinced by the author the Orthodox Word article the only way to understand the phenomenon of stigmatism, particularly in Francis’ case, but also in the lives of subsequent stigmatists such as Catherine of Siena, who lived during the Great Schism following the Babylonian captivity of the papacy in the Renaissance, and Padre Pio in the twentieth century?

I. Word-concept of stigmata, historically: Peter Damian. Imitatio in Alsace.

In her wide-ranging and very thorough From Judgement to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary 800 -1200, published in 2005, Rachel Fulton devotes significant space to an examination of Peter Damian (d. 1072) and his hermits. Peter Damian is significant for her purposes inasmuch as with him, devotion to Christ as Judge becomes fused and turned towards devotion to the Passion, the Cross being the judgement seat from which the world and its corruption is judged. The shift is interesting to consider in the light of Peter’s own seemingly judgemental sermons and his involvement in the Gregorian reform movement, a movement which set the stage for the spirituality and emphases of practice in the Latin West for the following three centuries.

One example of Peter’s devotion to the judgement-eschatology as it is linked to the Passion will suffice here. Presenting a long prayer by Peter contained in one of his letters, Fulton notes that Peter’s prayer ends with an exclamation that just as he is signed with the mark of the cross and thereby ‘configured to the crucified in punishment,’ so may he deserve to be the companion of the Arisen in glory.’ (Damian, Opusculum 50 (Letter 66) ch3, PL145, col 735, quoted in Fulton 2005:104f.) We thus see that for Peter, conformation to Christ in his passion, through penitence or self-mortification, one is led through death to transformation in Christ at his resurrection. Here, we see also how Latin and Byzantine emphases began to depart in emphasis, the Latins linking the Passion to the Resurrection as a necessary part through which the individual Christian, too, must pass.

More important to our purposes, however, what seems to be the first known reference to ‘stigmata’ appears in the vita of one of Peter’s monks at Fonte Avellana, where Peter’s reforms had taken root (Fulton 2005:101f, 105, 116, 460). Among the monks there was a former hermit called Dominic Loricatus (d. 1060, Oct 14), ‘Loricatus’ deriving from the chain mail he wore as a hairshirt. Fulton quotes from his vita:

“Dominic bore Christ as the crucified Judge, his body so tortured that it ‘bore the stigmata of Jesus’ for he had ‘fixed the sign (vexillum) of the cross not only on his forehead [at baptism], but printed it on every part of his body'” through self-mortification.

The idea of bearing the marks of Christ seems to hearken back to Paul’s statement in Galatians 6:17, associated at the time of Peter with the sort of self-mortification in which Christ’s power is made manifest or complete. This idea was already set out in Peter’s prayer, referenced above. Fulton, referencing Constable (1995), cautions that while “here, in Dominic’s vita, we encounter ‘the first known reference to what may have been the reproduction of Christ’s stigmata on a living person,’ … it is hard to know how descriptively Peter intended the allusion to Paul’s stigmata. (Constable. Three Studies in Medieval Religion and Social Thought. 1995. cf Elm ‘Pierced by Bronze Needles’ J. Roman Studies 1987:139 – 55.) In other words, Dominic’s stigmata may simply be an overall allusion to the ‘suffering servant’, and not to the five wounds of the crucifixion, which is what Francis’ stigmata specifically reference. This then raises the issue of the sheer novelty of Francis’ stigmata: actual marks of Christ were reported on his body.

In the eleventh century, ‘stigmata’ seems to reference asceticism undertaken in imitation of the sufferings of Jesus. It appears to be a general term, not linked to the Wounds of Christ. However, by the thirteenth century, as explored by Bynum in “Women mystics and Eucharistic Devotion in the Thirteenth Century” (reprinted in Lock and Farquar 2007), Beyond the Body Proper: Reading the Anthropology of Material Life, 202-212; from Chapter 4 of Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion, 1991.), the term seems increasingly confined to the five wounds of the Cross.

Setting up the context of this imitation, Bynum clarifies that “Illness and asceticism were … imitatio Christi, an effort to plumb the depths of Christ’s humanity at the moment of his most insistent and terrifying humanness — the moment of his dying.” (Bynum 2007:206) Bynum’s focus in the article is on the Eucharistic spirituality of thirteenth century female mystics, some of whom, like Gertrude the Great, were later canonised. “For thirteenth-century women this humanity was, above all, Christ’s physicality, his corporeality, his being-in-the-body-ness; Christ’s humanity was Christ’s body and blood.” (Bynum 2007:204). (Exploring the divergence between Byzantine and Latin eucharistic devotional theology must await another post; the devotion of the women Bynum treats in her article may not have made sense in the Byzantine contexts contemporary to them.)

Self-mortification in such a context was not viewed as a means to uproot lust, nor destroy the body or physicality as such, in contrast to such earlier ascetics as Jerome. Instead, it was meant as an aid to conform the practitioner to the Incarnation. As Fulton glosses Bynum’s work, Bynum traces how people ‘explored boundaries between body and person, person and God.’ (quoted in Fulton 2005). Devotion thus takes the doctrines of the Incarnation, the Church as the Body of Christ, and the individual’s participation in that corporeality as a means of self-transformation, as starting points for a deeper engagement of the person with the divine life.

After presenting various examples of Christ’s humanity in the visions of these mystics — as an infant in the host, for example — Bynum writes, “No religious woman failed to experience Christ as wounded, bleeding and dying. Women’s efforts to imitate this Christ involved becoming the crucified, not just patterning themselves after or expanding their compassion toward, but fusing with, the body on the cross. Both in fact and in imagery the imitatio, the fusion, was achieved in two ways: through asceticism and through eroticism. Thirteenth-century women joined with the crucifix through physical suffering, both involuntary and voluntary — that is, through illness and through self-mortification… We see this particularly in the case of stigmata, where it is sometimes not only impossible to tell whether the wounds are inner or outer, but also impossible to tell how far the appearance is miraculous and how far it is self-induced.”

Bynum goes on to quote a thirteenth century Alsatian author who wrote of the local nuns, “‘In Advent and Lent, all the sisters, coming into the chapter house after Matins, or in some other suitable place, hack at themselves cruelly, hostilely lacerating their bodies until the blood flows, with all kinds of whips, so that the sound reverberates all over the monastery and rises to the ears of the Lord of hosts sweeter than all melody…’ And she [the Alsatian author Bynum just quoted] called the results of such discipline stigmata.’ Francis ended his life in the first quarter of the thirteenth century; whether these sisters had heard of Francis or not, the evidence provided by this author suggests a wider idea of what constituted ‘stigmata’ than the spontaneous appearance of wounds on Francis’ body: any self-mortification in imitation of Christ’s passion was enough to be called, ‘stigmata’.

Two cases from the early fourteenth century also support that idea, and show how the term ‘stigmata’ becomes constrained to reference only the wounds in Christ’s hands and feet; both cases are from nearly a century after Francis’ death, and thus the term may have changed its meaning due to how the term was applied in Francis’ cases specifically. Bynum notes the case of Lukardis of Oberweimar [d. 1309], who ‘drove the middle finger of each hand, hard as a nail, through the palm of the opposite hand, until the room rang with the sound of the hammering; and stigmata ‘miraculously’ (says her thirteenth century biographer) appeared. Beatrice of Omacieux [fl. 1305, diocese of Grenoble, thus 80 years after Francis] thrust a nail completely through her hands and only clear water flowed from the wound.” (Bynum 2007:206. I would note this point corresponds to the acupuncture point PC-8, ‘LaoGong’, and avoids hitting major blood vessels in the palm; thus while the people of the time might consider it miraculous, today it would not, and we would say only lymphatic fluid drained from the area).

The difference between Francis and all the cases mentioned above — Peter Damian, Dominic Loricatus, the Alsatian nuns, Lucardis von Oberweimar, and Beatrice d’Omacieux — is that Francis did not take up a specific re-creation of the five wounds himself, whereas in the case of the others, particularly the last two, the physical imitation was clearly self-initiated.

When and how did this devotion to the Imitation of Christ originate? Is it aberrant? How can it be understood in Byzantium, if at all? A follow-up post may plumb the beginnings of this devotion to the Imitatio Christi (in addition to a whole series exploring the fifteenth century’s peculiar forms of Christianity — the century which gave rise to the Reformation); for now, however, let us return to the task at hand: clarifying what Francis’ stigmata were and what they were not, so that we can see what was ‘miraculous’ for his contemporaries about their appearance on him.

In terms of the larger tradition, the stigmata were associated with the Cross (by the date assigned to their appearance) and love (by the image of a Seraph, and by commentary of the hagiographers) rather than judgement or punishment (though the Alsatian sisters seem not to have seen their self-flagellation as punishment, but rather as Imitatio). They were treated as a seal indicative of conformation to Christ’s life.

What is different, however, is that Francis’ stigmata were not self-inflicted, according to the evidence we have in Thomas of Celano and Julian of Speyer. These stigmata were not taken upon himself by Francis himself — no self-flagellation or self-piercing is recorded in the context of his reception of stigmata, although Francis’ efforts at self-mortification earlier in his life were clearly noted. Additionally, the wounds seem to have contained nails which were not removed (not removable?), and the wounds did not heal.

It seems, then, that Francis subscribed to the earlier notion of stigmata evinced by Peter Damian and Dominic Loricatus, namely, a general self-mortification, or specifically in Francis’ case, devotion to ‘Lady Poverty’, rather than the later versions taken up by Lucardis of Oberweimar and Beatrice of Omacieux. Bonaventure’s statement made at the beginning of the Legenda Major bears out this interpretation: “[Francis] paid great attention to the mortification of the flesh so that he might carry externally in his body the cross of Christ which he carried internally in his heart.” (Legenda Major 1.6) Thus again, we see self-mortification as a form of voluntary Imitatio Christi, conforming to an interior bearing of the Cross Francis carried inwardly; the stigmata were unwilled, though accepted, marks of that interior devotion, impressed by all early accounts through the vision, if not the action, of the Seraph. The novelty of the five wounds specifically on Francis’ body therefore become not Imitatio so much as a surprising Transformatio in Christe.

Francis’ stigmata fit into the larger tradition of Imitatio Christi; the peculiar manifestation of the wounds in Francis’ case, however, moves beyond imitation and enters the realm of transformation. The transformative aspect is especially emphasised by the commentators, particularly when they describe the conformation of Francis’ external body to his interior life. Thomas of Celano, for example, describes the origin of the mystery (or sacrament) of Francis’ stigmata to the Cross rooted in Francis’ heart, “And therefore did the stigmata shine outwardly in his flesh because within that deeply planted root [the Cross] was sprouting in his mind.” (The phrase could plausibly be rendered in Anglo-Greek as ‘the noetically sprouting root of the Cross shone outwardly in his flesh’.) The image would be taken up again by Mirandola’s image of seeds bearing fruit — transforming one into an angel or Son of God, as described in the previous post on angels. No longer is the idea of angelification primary; with Francis, theosis, divinisation in the form of the Crucified and Resurrected Christ becomes visible.

Thomas of Celano refers to Francis’ stigmata as a mystery or sacrament, the transformation of the lover into the Beloved through or by means of his reflection of the Cross. I hesitate to use the scholastic definition of a sacrament as ‘the making visible of an invisible reality’, as the scholastic movement is only just beginning during the lifetime of Thomas of Celano. Nevertheless, Thomas does accept the stigmata as a revelation of an interior grace; merely the reason for its revelation at the time are concealed, as he exclaims in Chapter 154: “Be this alone announced to human ears, that it is not yet wholly clear wherefore that mysterious thing appeared in the Saint; for, as revealed by him, it derives its reason and purpose from the future. He shall prove true and trustworthy whose witness shall be Nature, the Law, and Grace.”

For Thomas of Celano, Francis is an exemplar of the Christian life. Francis’ behaviour and the symbolic importance of the stigmata were used in teaching the faithful. From a literary structuralist viewpoint, this can be seen in the arrangement of additional chapters treating Francis’ stigmata (e.g. ch. 98). These chapters are associated with Francis’ behaviour following the appearance of the stigmata, i.e. the remaining two years of his life, during which time Francis diligently concealed the marks from strangers, and even those closest to him were unaware of them for a long time. The chapters are placed so as to follow sections counselling against vainglory, and to precede those which discuss the virtue of hiding virtues; the climax occurs in chapters which praise humility and caution against trusting in one’s own opinion. In the entire series of chapters, we see an ongoing emphasis in Christian spirituality, drawn from Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and Tax-Collector, against self-aggrandisement in the name of righteousness. The implication is that while Francis could have been tempted to boast of the stigmata and proudly bear them, he did not; rather, Thomas writes, “He exerted himself in every way he could to hide it,” because he did not want to lose the grace through the favour of human beings. “For he had found by experience that it is a very evil thing to impart all things to everybody.” At the same time, Francis did not think it wise to conceal ‘revelations’ from others. In the Second Life, chapter 102, Thomas writes, “In many matters he had learnt his opinions by revelation, but yet he would bring them into discussion and prefer the opinion of others. He believed his companions advice to be safer… He used to say that anyone who kept back the treasure-chests of his own opinion had not left all for the sake of God.” In other words, a theology is being drawn from Francis’ life, whose sanctity and embodiment of particular virtues confirms previous ideas regarding them. Francis, in keeping with Gospel precepts about not boasting about grace, was afforded additional graces. This was proof enough for Thomas to hold Francis up as an example for readers to learn how God rewards those who follow His counsels.

“And indeed the glorious life of this man sheds clearer light on the perfection of earlier saints; the Passion of Jesus Christ proves this and His Cross makes it most fully manifest. Verily our venerable father was signed in five parts of his body with the token of the Cross and Passion, as if he had hung on the cross with the Son of God. This sacrament [mysterium] is a great thing and makes known the majesty of love’s prerogative; but therein a secret counsel lies hid… wherefore it is not expedient to attempt much in praise of him whose praise is from Him who is the Praise, the Source, the Honour of all, the most mighty, giving rewards of light…” (Thomas of Celano, First Life of Francis, Part 2, on the last 2 years of Francis’ life.) Key in this passage are the links drawn between the union of earlier saints with Christ’s kenosis as expressed in the Passion (the term at Thomas’ time can include the Resurrection, although the two — Passion and Resurrection — slowly separate into their own respective, overlapping domains), through whose reconciliation grace flows to humanity; between love, the Cross, and sacramental mysterium; and between the singular favour with which Francis was loved and how that love given to him to love Christ was manifested outwardly in his body. These links are drawn more fully by Bonaventure, as presented previously. One additional example here must suffice.

In Bonaventure’s account of Francis’ reception of the stigmata, he relates that at the end of forty days, Francis comes down from the mountain as a second Moses, bearing the image of the crucified as engraved in his body by the finger of God, glossed “when the true love of Christ had transformed his lover into his image.” The finger of God, of course, is the Seraph or the action of the Seraph in imprinting the marks of Christ’s wounds on Francis, the symbolic image of love; while the transformation is of Francis’ physical body into the image of the body which Thomas the Apostle saw and sought to probe. From imitatio Christi, Francis came to experience transformatio in Christe. Bonaventure makes a further leap, however: just as Christ is the giver of the law of grace, so also Francis inaugurates the physicality of that grace, becoming like a second law-giver, but a law which must be embodied. Unless the idea of law be attached to fear and punishment, Bonaventure adds another motivation: love, specifically, God’s choice to impress the marks of the Passion on Francis. Bonaventure emphasises becoming Christ, shifting from earlier Augustinian images of the Trinity manifest in humanity. A possible counterpoint to Richard of St Victor as well may be detected, inasmuch as the transformative power of grace operates on both mind and body.

As for later commentators, I have already posted how Olivi exalts Francis on the basis of his perfect Imitatio Christi, placing Francis in the sphere of the Seraphim. Mirandola, likewise, uses Francis as an example of how the seeds of virtue planted during one’s life can bear fruit in the divinisation of sainthood.

Why did the phenomenon of the five-wounds stigmata appear in Italy, then, and not in the East Roman Empire?

Why a Seraph?: St Francis, Stigmata, and Polemic in the Orthodox Church (Part 4)

Discussion of Allied Questions


However much the examinations of manuscript transmission and the particular politics of the various vitae sketched at the outset of part 3a might add to adiscussion about the question of Francis’ vision and reception of the stigmata, that information is subsidiary to more pertinent questions. Three questions, from the perspective of one assessing the potential Orthodoxy or heterodoxy of Francis’ stigmata, assume primary importance. The most central involves the question of the Stigmata as evidence of holiness or divine favour. Is it a valid miracle, or is it delusion of the faithful? What does such a sign mean to the people among whom it is found (in this case, medieval Italians)? How was it interpreted by them? How was Francis himself affected by the wounds? Of related concern, we might ask who or what was the Seraph which appeared to Francis? In the simple and sceptical terms of the theological and hagiographical literary tradition, where could this seraph have come from? What precedents mark it out as intelligible to thirteenth century Christians? Finally, the third main question asks how was Francis himself interpreted and portrayed in the early Lives? Why was he held up for international devotion, and what made him so popular a figure, both in the sense of being an object of lay devotion, but also in the sense of being an object of meditation for scholastic and mystical theologians? How must Orthodoxy grapple with this ongoing devotion, and is an ‘economic’ interpretation available to Orthodoxy of Francis as a saint?

I will address this questions by first treating the vision of the Seraph, before moving on to examine the Stigmata, and finally addressing the question of interpreting Francis life.

Why a Seraph?

One question underlying an examination of Francis’ vision of the Seraph concerns what medieval interpreters thought of visions in general. After ascertaining attitudes towards this contextual marker we can then move on to examine the content of Francis’ vision, namely, the Seraph of the Passion. To accomplish this goal, we will turn to the writings of Richard of St Victor (fl. 1162 – 1173), who lived and wrote in Paris about a generation before Francis. Because his writings, together with other authors from the monastery of St Victor, were influential in forming the emerging scholastic movement in medieval theology and spirituality and were subsequently transmitted throughout Latin-reading Europe, and because of the high regard in which Richard’s writings were held by theologians in the century following his death, his opinions on the matter will be considered representative of Latin Europe at the time of Francis’ own vision.

Richard of St Victor, in the first book of his Commentary on the Apocalypse, partitions visions into four types, two of which are bodily (corporales) and two of which are spiritual (spirituales). The first bodily type of vision bears little mystical significance, but the second is quite different: “A form or action is revealed to our sense of exterior sight while interiorly a virtue of great mystical significance is contained.” In contrast to the first type of vision, this second sort of vision overflows with heavenly mysteries. The third and fourth visions, ‘seen in the heart’, move the soul to an understanding of celestial matters, either by the forms of visible things, or by “subtle and sweet internal aspirations.” Of these four types, the vision of the Seraph seems to be of the second type: a vision seen with the eyes, containing visual elements, which though incongruent, raised Francis’ mind to contemplation of heavenly matters. It is possible, however, that the vision was of the third type, the form of a visible thing seen in the heart. However, neither Thomas of Celano nor Bonaventure seem to treat the vision as being only seen in the heart; for those writers, the vision appears to Francis corporally. Therefore, the vision would have an internal significance quite apart from the external appearance of the Seraph.

(Although the Latin Saint, John of the Cross (d. 1591), might argue that in terms of grace visions convey their transformative significance to the visionary from the first instant they are perceived, his writings post-date our time period by about four centuries. The more famous writings of John of the Cross concern how one enters a dark night of illumination through the leaving behind of all sensibly perceived phenomena, Richard of St Victor, in contrast, is most famous for his writings on meditative and contemplative techniques. To grossly oversimplify the difference between the two, John of the Cross describes the landscape and maps the experience of the journey to stillness; Richard gives us descriptions of what to do before we are there. In several respects St John’s work presupposes the practice of Richard’s technqiues. Thus the idea of the careful consideration of the import of a vision, inasmuch as it is a ‘doing’, fits in with the overall didactic purpose of Richard’s oevre.)

With Richard’s statements about how theologians contemporary with Francis understood the phenomena (plural) of visions, we can now take up the specific content of Francis’ vision of the Seraph of the Cross.

The problem of the Seraph

The image Francis saw, to recount Bonaventure, was of a “Seraph with six fiery and shining wings… when in swift flight the Seraph had reached a spot in the air near the man of God [Francis], there appeared between the wings the figure of a man crucified, with his hands and feet extended in the form of a cross and fastened to a cross. Two of the wings were lifted above his head, two were extended for flight and two covered his whole body.” (Bonaventure, Life of Francis, ch 13, p305; cf earlier sources in Thomas of Celano, Vita Prima 94 and Tractatus de Miraculis 4; cf Julian of Speyer 61.) While no sources record what the vision might have said to Francis, Bonaventure, at least, does note in the same chapter that Francis mentioned to his disciples that the vision did include an auditory component. Let us note at the outset that this was not the first time an image of a crucified man spoke to Francis (cf Bonaventure, Life of Francis 1.5, relying on Celano 2.10-11.) The same sources, however, also note that Francis declared he would not tell them what the vision said, and so the authors of his Vita, and ourselves, are faced with deciphering the vision from its visual components only.

Why a Seraph? Who or what was it? Was the Seraph an actual angel or a theophanic angel (i.e. a manifestation of Christ, the Word in the form of an angel)? Was it a devil? How are we to interpret this vision today? Are the foregoing questions taken up in any form by our writers?

“Theophanic angels” are manifestations of God in the form of angels. The idea was proposed by early writers who had to confront passages in the Bible which would switch from speaking of ‘the angel of the Lord’ to then declaring that such an angel was the visible manifestation of God. An example of such a switch occurs in the Akeidah, the sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham. In Genesis 22: 1 – 19, when Abraham is about to sacrifice his son, an angel of the Lord appears to Abraham and tells Abraham not to kill Isaac. Abraham desists, and names the site Adonai-yireh, for the Lord was seen on that mountain.

The tradition of associating theophanic angels with Jesus stretches back to at least the fourth century, if not earlier, in commentaries on Moses’ visions of the Burning Bush, the return to Egypt, and the Crossing of the Red Sea, as well as in those which treat Ezekiel’s vision of the Chariot (or specifically, the man of electrum at the centre of that vision), to say nothing of commentaries on the Apocalypse. A clearly Christian example of the phenomenon can be seen in Victor of Vita’s records of the Vandal persecution. There, he recounts a vision which a Catholic layperson had during the Arian Visigothic occupation of North Africa. In this vision, a bronze or copper skinned man dressed in white linen comes down form heaven and separates grain from the chaff. The man then separates the full grains from the thin ones. The vision was interpreted as symbolic of the winnowing of the Church through persecution, but the content clearly has links to Ezekiel’s vision of bronze- or copper-skinned angels who guided him through the future Temple — and for Victor, the implication is that the figure the visionary saw was a manifestations of Jesus.

Thomas of Celano seems loathe to claim or disclaim the seraph as a manifestation of the Word. In fact, he seems particularly keen not to make any definite statements either way, but leaves the question obviously and entirely open. Even in his later Life, Thomas still appears confused over what to make of the nature of this particular angel — creature or Christ? Bonaventure, on the other hand, neglects the question altogether, although he does write at one point that our Lord imprinted the stigmata on Francis (through the vision of the Seraph), he does not directly state the Seraph was Christ (XIII.9). Instead, Bonaventure tends to concentrate on the form, rather than the substance of the angel. We will take up his approach in more detail, below.

Perhaps Hugh of St Victor (d. 1141), a predecessor of Richard’s at the monastery of St Victor, can clarify the difficulty. Discussing why the redemption of humanity occurred through the Incarnation of the Word, rather than through that of an angel, Hugh writes, “[An incarnate angel] would thus be both man and angel, that is, man and greater than man. He would restore the loss of service to God through his righteousness, make satisfaction for the length of the lost service through his dignity, and satisfy the contempt through his own unmerited suffering. But we say that this could not happen that way. For if God were the Creator and another were restorer, then indeed the love of man would be divided between the Creator and the restorer because, as it was said above, it is a greater benefit to renew than to create…” God wanted unity of love from humankind, Hugh says, and “this is even perceived from the unity of the number, namely six, which was found both in the work of creation and in the work of restoration, as we also taught above.” (Sentences on Divinity in Coolman and Coulter 2011:124.) Thus our writers were also careful to preserve the centrality of Christ — as Thomas does in a rather convoluted praise to the Source of Praise when he comes to speak of the stigmata more directly (Vita Prima, part two, treating the last two years of Francis’ life).

Ultimately, the issue does not seem to have been explored with any certainty by our sources, perhaps because they had no way of ascertaining the exact nature of the angel, or perhaps because ambiguity better served the interests of Bonaventure and Thomas of Celano, in that it would not split devotion to Christ. In any case, both sources continue to specify the vision as one of a Seraph; this is not in dispute, however much the writers may suspect a theophany.

The flipside of the question asks whether the Seraph who appeared to Francis can be interpreted as a ‘devil in disguise.’ Just as the nature of this angel cannot be ascertained as theophanic in our sources, so also whether this angel was a devil in sheep’s clothing cannot be discerned from the texts. Demons and devils do, however, make an appearance in our sources (e.g. Bonaventure, Life of Francis 6:10), and are clearly distinguished as such. One can surmise, then, that our authors did not believe this vision to have been diabolical in nature.

In the various Vitae of Francis, devils, when they do appear, seem to play a role similar to that found in earlier hagiographies about monks and hermits, St Anthony of Egypt in particular. For example, demons attack the saint through the night, but he repels them (Bonaventure Vita 10); they tempt him to give up his way of life, or moderate it, but the saint redoubles his commitment; the demons try to distract him, but the saint exorcises them from other people. (cf. Bonaventure Vita ch 5 p219; 6, p236; 7 p 242 – 243; 10, p 274.) In the Latin and German West the role of devils as direct opponents of angels in the life of human beings becomes particularly prominent only after the Reformation, corresponding to a point in time when angels had lost their place as a hierarchy and science. In matter of point, most often Bonaventure uses the terms ‘the devil’s tricker’ or ‘the devil was in it’ and really only in Chapter 10 does he affirm the physical manifestations of devils fighting with Francis.

It is true, that the Fioretti — a fourteenth century work — include an account of a devil masquerading to a friar as his guardian angel; Francis told that friar to tell the guardian angel to open his mouth and the friar would shit in it. However, in the Fioretti, devils seem only able to imitate angels (guardian angels in particular), rather than archangels or any of the highest of the celestial hierarchy, the thrones, cherubim, and seraphim. Although William of Auvergne (d. 1249; like the Victorines, a Parisian Master of Theology) did posit ‘anti-seraphim’, ‘anti-cherubim’, and so on in his writings on angels, this seems to have been a theoretical exercise only, and did not exert much influence on the hagiographical genre.

I bring up the question of devils because such beliefs are occasionally intimated among Orthodox writers regarding Latin (and ‘Monophysite’) saints. The whole question of diabolic delusion is fraught with double standards in polemical argumentation, and is rarely useful as an analytical tool — unless one is specifically examining how such accusations are used and developed in different times and places, and for different purposes. For our purposes, however, since we cannot know what the angel was, we must turn to what is accessible to our analysis from our sources: namely, what the angel meant within the context of Francis’ world.

As we noted above in Richard’s distinction between the four types of vision, the second sort of vision contains an internal significance which sometimes needed to be puzzled out by the recipient. This puzzling out meant, in today’s language, that the visionary had to rely on his or her own symbolic universe in order to decipher the vision, not unlike the way some psychoanalysts (particularly of the Jungian, rather than the Freudian, sort) do today. Therefore, it seems reasonable that we approach the question of what meaning would lay behind a vision of a Seraph, from the perspective of someone living in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Certainly this was the approach Bonaventure took, when he concentrated on the form of the Seraph, rather than its nature.

Iribarren and Leaz explain in the Introduction to their volume of collected essays treating the topic of the function and role of Angels in Medieval Philosophy, that as “creatures of two worlds, angels provided the ideal grounds for exploring aspects of both God and his creation, forming a nodal point where a wide range of subjects from metaphysics, cosmology, epistemology, ethics, to (mystical) theology converged and developed.” As the authors clarify, “Angels can also be seen as protagonists of thought experiments in which metaphysical, epistemological, or ethical issues are analysed under ideal conditions.” (Iribarren and Leaz. Angels in Medieval Philosophical Inquiry. Their function and significance 2008:7)

The convergence of subjects under the particular theme of angelology was particularly true for the twelfth century theologians, whose interests lay in preserving the concepts of hierarchy rooted in the writings of Dionysios (Denys) the Aeropagite, which had been passed down since the Carolingian era, while assimilating the newly encountered science — scholastic logic — emanating from Muslim Kingdoms in Spain and recently conquered Norman Sicily. Both notions, hierarchy and science, were appropriated by scholastics. Central to this rapprochement — which was looked upon with skepticism by monastics like St Bernard — were angels. As a result of Francis’ vision, the concern to reconcile the two came to the fore, and ideas about humanity’s place in the hierarchies of the celestial world became ascendant, with the effect that philosophers advanced a further integration of revealed tradition through their encounter with the lived experience in the personal holiness of Francis.

Denys the Aeropagite was quoted from the fifth century onwards, although who the author of the works transmitted under the name of Paul’s Athenian convert and first bishop of Athens remains in dispute. His Celestial Hierarchy became a key reference for theologians writing on angels for centuries to come. He is the first to divide the angels into a Neoplatonically oriented set of nine choirs, each further removed from the Divinity. As Dionysios writes, “This, then, the theologians distinctly shew (viz.) that the subordinate Orders of the Heavenly Beings are taught by the superior, in due order, the deifying sciences; and that those who are higher than all are illuminated from Godhead itself, as far as permissible, in revelations of the Divine mysteries.” (Celestial Hierarchy, section 2 and 3) The Seraphim are the highest and closest to the Divine Source, and burn with the pureness of divine love. They convey deifying virtue to those further removed from the wellspring of grace. These ideas were still common currency in twelfth and thirteenth century Latin theologians. (It should be mentioned the locus classicus for Seraphim are in Isaiah 6:1-11)

Hugh of St Victor (d. 1141), already referred to above, mentions the Seraphim in his De Arca Noe. (Recently Conrad Rudolf has argued that this treatise, as it has come down to us is the result of a reportatio, a set of class notes published by one of his students — see Conrad Rudolf (2004). “First, I find the center point”: Reading the Text of Hugh of Saint Victor’s The Mystic Ark.” American Philosophical Society.) The treatise seems to be a set of instructions on how to paint a particular meditative device, a diagram of the Word encompassing the cosmos, framed by the circle of the zodiac and the months in the ether, the winds in the air, and the earth — with its historical and geographic events tied to salvation history. Christ himself is supported on either side by two Seraphim. Rorem, in his examination of Hugh of St Victor writes, ‘The Lord, sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up,’ with ‘the whole earth full of His glory’ and ‘two seraphim standing’ were given visual expression and exegetical interpretation [in the first mention of a diagram in Noah’s Ark]. The seraphim, for example, with their three pairs of wings, signify scripture in its three senses (history, allegory, and tropology), each one pairing love of God with love of neighbor. In that they cover the Lord’s head and feet they show that we cannot know God’s beginning before the creation of the world or God’s end after the consummation of the age, but we can know the era of the church in Christ’s body in this age. ‘This is the ark, of which we have set out to speak; and it reaches from the head to the feet, because through successive generations, Holy Church reaches from the beginning to the end.’ Thus the ark as the historical church, the body of Christ, is framed by the protective arms of the Lord who will guide it as if through the flood into a safe harbor of eternal rest.13 (Rorem, Hugh of St Victor. 2009:131) The Seraphim, in this instance, function as the means whereby the faithful have access to knowledge of Christ’s body. For Hugh, that body is the Church as contained in the world. Later in the thirteenth century, that body becomes increasingly associated with the corpus of Christ on the cross and on the altar, as we will examine in the section treating the stigmata. Important here is also the association of Seraphim with love of God and neighbour, and the means by which such love can be nourished, namely, full use of scripture. Bonaventure will draw on the interpretation of the Seraphim’s three pairs of wings as symbols in his own treatise on The Journey of the Mind (or Soul) to God.

Allan de Lille (1128 – 1202 or 1203), another theologian associated with Paris, continues the idea of angels as transmitters of Divine revelation in his Hierarchia. “Alan describes the chief characteristics of the angelic orders and then the specific function of angels in relation to human beings who will, after receiving appropriate angelic tuition, join the angelic order which most suitably corresponds to their condition.” (Lascombe, D. 2008. “The Hierarchies in the Writings of Alan of Lille, William of Auvergne, and St Bonaventure.” in Iribarren and Leaz 2008:17.) Thus, like Denys, divine tuition is passed through the orders — but now also to humans as well as to angels. The difference, though, is that the orders of angels are static, whilst humans have the potential to move from sphere to sphere through the angelic hierarchies.

Taking only the most central Triad of angels as representative of Allan’s thought, the order of Seraphim indicates those who burn with divine love. Those who embody and progress towards this proximity to the divine are contemplatives who are wholly given over to divine love — e.g. men of the cloistered life (the mendicant orders had not yet been founded or ‘invented’; cf Bonaventure Vita XI, p280). The order of Cherubim, illustrative of divine knowledge, are augmented by humans who devote their time to the study and teaching of Sacred Scripture. The sphere of Thrones, those who sit in judgement, is the worthy home of those who judge justly and not rashly. Again, for Allan, contemplation is that which is above the active life, that is, the union born of stillness. This is the sphere of the Seraphim. Speculative theology, and the clarity of knowledge derived form seeing in a clear mirror is the domain of the Cherubim. Discursive meditation or the virtue of discernment, the level of Thrones, is characterised as a broad, yet peaceful undertaking.

Angelic speculation was further systematised around 1220 – 1225 with the publication of Alex Hales’ Glossa Ordinaria. This work set the stage for future Parisian scholastic writing on the subject. Subsequent to Hales, Albert the Great and his student Thomas Aquinas discuss angels in the context of their role in transmitting the outpouring of divine grace through the celestial hierarchy. Albert the Great discusses how angels ‘illuminate’ humans in his Super Dionysium de Caelesti Hierarchia (ed. Simon and Kuebel, Muenster 1993), following the tradition taught by Denys the Aeropagite. Appearances of angels therefore occur in order to bring the message of grace to earth and earth’s inhabitants. The movement of humans through these hierarchies continues as a theme.

The Parisian most pertinent to illuminating the role angels play in medieval mystical theology, and in Francis’ vision particularly, is Bonaventure. “For Bonaventure — the souls that are most hierarchised [i.e. the closest to the centre of the hierarchy], the most filled with the Spirit, the most contemplative, the most comparable with the Seraphim, the Cherubim, and the Thrones are found in the holiest of the religious orders, in their greatest representatives St Francis himself [Seraph], in the mendicant orders [Cherubim] and in the orders of Cistercian monks and of Praemonstratensian canons [Thrones].” (Iribarren and Leaz, 2008:27; As a side note, Bonaventure places the four Byzantine patriarchs alongside pope in the hierarchy.) For Bonaventure, contemplatives become associated with knowledge, losing their place in the realm of the Seraphim. Like previous authors, Bonaventure characterises the Seraphim as burning with the ardour of divine love. Indeed, the chapter in which Francis sees the vision of the Seraph is framed in such language, with repeated uses of words related to ‘burning’ or ‘ardour’ and ‘love’ peppering the account. Francis, associated with the Seraphim, is thus paired with virtues of burning love.

Bonaventure set the precedent for later Franciscan speculation on humanity’s participation in the angelic and divine hierarchies. Among these later writers, Olivi (fl. 1266 – 1273 in Paris; ultimately censored in 1283) stands out in particular contrast, not the least for provoking a controversy which led to a shift in angelology for the subsequent century. (Olivi is also noted for his thesis that the chain of Being — causation — intelligibility holds together the universe.) “Peter John Olivi asserts Christ’s soul is higher than any angel’s; seconded by His mother’s soul; third is possibly Francis, who took the place ‘left vacant by Lucifer’ (Summa vol 1 q47p753).” (Iribarren and Leaz 2008:38) In this way, Olivi links the characteristics of the angelic orders with the particular virtues most in evidence in the most highly venerated saints of the period. These saints achieved their place through the imitation and execution of the virtue most associated with the angelic order at which the saint ultimately arrived. For him, Francis and the Blessed Virgin are the two exemplars of the mobility humans have with regard to the divine life. Iribarren and Leaz, commenting on Olivi’s particular synthesis state that “[his] view heralds the Christocentrism shaping most of fourteenth century thought and leading to the Reformation.” (2008:9) Francis vision of the Seraph, for Olivi, was indicative of the sphere to which Francis had come to belong — that closest to Christ, after His mother.

Iribarren and Leaz point out that one practical result of this synthesis, from the point of view of the ordinary layperson was the increased relevance of the communion of saints, not only in the transmission of virtue or grace and as exemplars for imitation but also as a focus for meditation. As Iribarren and Leaz phrase this change, “the period following the condemnation [of 1277]… gave way to new forms of religious spirituality, whereby what brings humans closer to God are no longer quasi-divine ‘intelligences’ in a static hierarchy leading to the first principle, but rather the merits of humans leading sinless lives and [who] have accordingly received the divine gift of grace.” (2008:4)

In some ways, the synthesis provided by incorporating Francis into the angelic hierarchy, as representative of the potential for human advancement in proximity to the divine, is nicely epitomised in Mirandola’s (d. 1494) assertion that whatever seeds humans cultivate will bear fruit: those who cultivate the vegetative aspects of their souls will be no more and no less than plants; those who pursue merely their animal and sensual affects will ultimately end as brutish creatures; those humans who concentrate on their rational powers are transfigured into heavenly beings; while those whose attention has been directed to intellectual and noetic contemplation and activities become angels and sons of God. The saint, for Mirandola, is a human being whose movement through the angelic hierarchies renders him or her divinised.

The sixteenth century saw incredible changes in theology, both in Catholic and the newly emergent Protestant circles. Melanchthon’s (d. 1560) Protestant theological axiom, to argue only about what is necessary for salvation, not on irrelevancies, effectively did away with angelology for Protestantism. The Catholic theologian and mathematician Charles de Bovelles (d. p1566) articulated a typically Counter-Reformation, highly philosophical, Catholic position: In his writings, the angelic intellect is pure presence, the presence and actuality of all things; the human intellect by contrast means distance and future potentiality. Like contemporary Protestant theologians, angels were thus effectively removed from discussion in Latin/ Catholic theology as well.

Thus, the general trends in angelology (particularly as summarised in Chapter 12 of Ibarren and Leaz, from which the above paragraphs are derived) develop from the early twelfth century, when angels provided material for thought experiments by medieval philosophers, to being seen by Renaissance thinkers as tenders of cosmological order. During and after the Catholic and Protestant Reformations, angels lost their cosmological and speculative functions, and were portrayed merely as providing a counter to the devil; Protestant reformers went further and also eliminated the role of the holy human intercessor, a role which had been articulated through the Medieval period through reflection on Francis’ place in the integrated celestial-terrestrial hierarchy of St Denys.

The vision Francis related to his disciples, as recorded in our sources, however, was not simply of ‘an angel’, but was a very specific image, quite particular in fact: a Seraph with a crucified man at the centre. A disjuncture occurs between images of creatures burning with love due to their proximity to the Source of joy and tranquility, and the image of a crucified man. This disjuncture is key not only to understanding the meaning the vision might have had for Francis, but also to understanding why Francis is described as wondering at the vision. As the reader will recall, the author of the Orthodox Word article would tend to focus on just that element of Francis vision — wondering — arguing that such wonder was the same as the mulling and obsessing over a creation of an unstable mind.

However, St Denys speaks of dissimilar and deformed symbols as precisely the means of raising one’s mind to celestial mysteries: “[While] a manifestation through dissimilar shapes is more correctly to be applied to the invisible… incongruities are more suitable for lifting our minds up into the domain of the spiritual than similarities are.” (Celestial Hierarchy, II.3) As one interpreter of Dionysius notes, “The dissimilar images… their failure is a stimulant for the spirit which prevents it from becoming sluggish or hypnotised by figures through which the natural enchantment might perhaps otherwise jeopardise one’s motion toward God.” (Roques, Struct Theol. 142.) In the East, these incongruities found liturgical expression in the most loved of Greek rhetorical devices, the paradox (e.g. ‘the uncontainable was contained within a womb’). In the West, paradox was more restrained rhetorically; but our focus is on Francis’ individual vision and we need not digress on the particularities of East-West rhetorical divergence here.

Thomas of Celano and Bonaventure both explicitly state that Francis was struck by the dissonance in his vision, of an impassible Seraph enwrapping the image of the Passion. How could two such symbols have come together? Taken separately, what meaning does each have in common with the other? Where did these symbols come from?

One possible answer (reference has already been made in a previous post to the Judas Cyriacus legend) to all three questions is the observation that the vision incorporates the simple juxtaposition, readily understood in the minds of medieval Christians, of two symbols of supreme love: the first being the Seraph, a theme we noted in several authors above; and the second being Christ’s love for humanity as manifested by his death on a Cross. Particularly in this latter capacity, we see the ‘celestial’ God emptied out and at his most ‘terrestrial’ and incarnate. In Francis’ vision we thus have the image-able symbol of love in the celestial sphere — a Seraph (since God cannot be imaged as such, angels must stand in as the image and form of the divine virtues apprehensible to human sight) — united with what for Latin and German Christendom at the time was the icon of love in the terrestrial sphere — the Cross with the Crucified Christ. For someone whose theme of contemplation was love of God, and imitation of Christ out of love, such a vision is not at all out of the realm of possibility.

If these two symbols were obvious to any medieval Latin Christian, why should Francis have wondered at what the vision meant? If we remember the overarching topic of meditation during Francis’ retreat at Alverna, he was contemplating how else he could imitate Christ. Presumably this imitation included Christ’s love of neighbour, the poor, the sick, and the suffering (cf Bonaventure Vita ch 4, p208, and ch 13, ‘by his sweet compassion’). The question Francis had in mind was what more could he himself do to completely conform himself to Christ’s love? The result was a vision of supreme Love — a union of the highest celestial with the highest terrestrial images of love — but how was such a symbolic illustration of love applicable in practical terms? I would suggest that the meaning Francis sought regarding the vision was exactly that practical aspect — how was Francis to apply such love in the human sphere? How does it, in the words of St Denys’ modern commentator, allow Francis to continue to pursue God while on earth?

Those questions lead to what is unique in the vision, that it seems to have resulted in, if not merely foretold, Francis’ reception of the stigmata. The stigmata themselves bring us to the heart of the Orthodox confusion about the significance of the vision.



Meditation Techniques: St Francis, Stigmata, and Polemic in the Orthodox Church (Part 3)

Analysis of the Various Accounts

This post continues from where two previous ones left off. In the first part, I described the problem, namely, that misinformation and polemic based on a lack of scholarship is polluting Orthodox publications in the United States, and I specifically mentioned the example of a question in the Orthodox Word regarding the stigmatist Padre Pio. In the second post, I presented two much earlier accounts of the Life of St Francis, both of which had official sanction by the Latin Church and the Franciscan Order, in contrast to the late source which the author of the Orthodox Word article used. The earlier accounts were written by Thomas of Celano and St Bonaventure; the other early account, by Julien of Speyer, was not treated. The version referenced by the Orthodox Word author was the Fioretti, or Little Flowers of St Francis. In this post, I hope to explore some issues raised in the differing presentations by Thomas and Bonaventure. Those issues include the varying purposes with which the various hagiographies were written; an exploration on holiness in context;the allied questions of why a seraph? and why stigmata? I also hope to note how Francis became a node uniting several medieval devotions, and allowed the presentation of an alternative masculinity or way of imitating Christ’s life, in counterpoint to the masculinities promoted during the era of knights and Crusaders.


A comparison of the different accounts is really a discussion about how Bonaventure and later sources use the earlier vitae by Thomas of Celano and Julian of Speyer. What changes did they make, or more specifically, what changes in interpretation of the events did they make? Why did they make those changes? What are the implications for or about medieval Italian spirituality, both ecclesial and popular, that such changes point out? Ideally, one might look at the dissemination of various vitae throughout Europe and from that distribution deduce which were most influential in ‘Catholic’ Europe — or which versions were most attractive to copyists.

As noted in the second post, Thomas’ account was requested by the Pope, and acted for a time as the ‘official’ account. Thomas’ version of events came to be superseded by Bonaventure’s work, written both with an eye to tying Francis’ life to a systematic exposition of theology, including contemplative theology, and to wresting away what were considered distortions of Francis’ example among the various factions within the Franciscan order. The Fioretti, on which the author of the Orthodox Word article based his argument, was a popular work, written with a different audience in mind than either Thomas’ or Bonaventure’s accounts. As works written for a lay audience, the stories contained in the Fioretti were by nature more colourful and memorable versions of the official biographical and hagiographical treatments commissioned by the heads of the Franciscan order and the Pope. The goal of popular accounts was to influence the affect of the listener (these works would have been recited to illiterate audiences, rather than read by private readers, in many cases). That is, the work was designed to heighten feelings of devotion and wonder, usually towards the person in question, but occasionally to imitation of those actions. The official works by Thomas and Bonaventure, on the other hand, were written for study and theological elaboration. Bonaventure’s Life of Francis is clearly a theologically contemplative account; the Fioretti much more a ‘best-selling’ and ‘fashionable’ one. Both are literary, in their way; but their audiences differ and the reliability of each as reflective of historical accuracy, to say nothing of a theological position adopted and approved by the Church, differs and must be acknowledged.

While this may seem to raise the question of the relation and disjunctions between ‘official’ hagiography and ‘popular’ religious devotion, with its attendant implication that the ‘people’ may not be entirely orthodox, or in some other cases even entirely Christian, misses the point: Thomas and Bonaventure’s accounts are to be preferred in Orthodox discussions about Francis’ life, the former for the earliness of his account; the second for the theological use to which Francis was put — it is the ‘official’ account acceptable to Latin theologians for the purpose of theological argument. The Fioretti can be called upon for evidence of popular devotion, for examples of how Francis was remembered — or constructed — in popular imagination, or as an example of how the literary tradition was passed and shaped by many different hands. How elite and popular theology intersect in the making of saints is a question that would take all these accounts and examine them in the context of social and liturgical-devotional history. Religion may well yoke together both elite theology and popular spirituality (or popular theology and elite spirituality) and strive to reign them in like a charioteer pulled by two very spirited and often competitive horses; in our case, the yoke was provided by the person of Francis. Some intersections between popular and elite religion may be mentioned below, but the issue as such deserves its own post.

All the texts do agree that Francis was marked with the stigmata sometime between August 15 and September 30, during the Fast of St Michael which Francis celebrated, as was his custom, on Mt Alverna in 1224 although Bonaventure links the vision more specifically to the Feast of the Cross on September 14. Bonaventure and Thomas disagree, however, in how the Seraph came to appear to Francis. For Thomas, Francis simply sees a vision of a Seraph standing over him. The vision provokes wonder, which fits the overall contemplative context of Francis retreat on Mt Alverna. Later, Francis exerts his faculty of reason (Thomas uses the words understanding, and mentions the heart, which is often the seat of understanding in Medieval texts) to penetrate the meaning of the vision. Thomas is actually quite clear that the goal of Francis’ meditation was the meaning of the vision. As Thomas writes in chapter three, “he could not understand what this vision might mean… He pondered at what this vision might portend… his spirit laboured sore to come at the understanding… and while he continued without any clear perception of its meaning.” It was as he meditated — using the faculty of reason — that marks of the stigmata began to appear.

In Bonaventure’s text (chapter thirteen), the contemplative context is even more explicitly mentioned, Francis experiencing more fully the gifts of divine grace and desire for heavenly things. As Bonaventure states, “[Francis] experienced more abundantly than usual an overflow of the sweetness of heavenly contemplation.” In his account, the seraph appears and descends, and Francis experiences wonder. As the vision continues, Francis contemplates its meaning. Whether this search for the meaning of the vision could be termed contemplation or meditation is open to debate. Bonaventure specifically refers to the vision, however, as a ‘revelation from the Lord’, which in thirteenth century parlance would indicate a matter of contemplation. (A good teacher, Bonaventure offers an interpretation; whether this interpretation was told by the Seraph to Francis, or by Francis to his companions is not noted by Bonaventure.) Interestingly, the combination of wonder and understanding by revelation, both seem to have occurred before the vision faded. Nothing in the vision recorded in Bonaventure’s text implies that Francis would experience Christ crucified in his body; rather, the text previously mentions Francis’ desire for martyrdom (perhaps through preaching in the Muslim world, as was his desire earlier in life). In the sentence at hand, when the fact that Francis would not achieve this transformation through martyrdom is clarified, the implication for Francis’ transformation is associated directly with Francis’ incendium mentis, his ‘noetic fire’, indicating a more clearly spiritual transformation, even if Bonaventure avowed a ‘total’ transformation into the likeness of Christ. The appearance of the stigmata happened as the vision disappeared, after it spoke with Francis and the revelation of transformation was made clear to Francis.

The differences in the two accounts are important. While in neither case was Francis visualising and working himself up into delusional hysterics before the vision of the Seraph appeared, as the version in the Fioretti might (and in the case of the Orthodox Word author, did) lead one to believe, Thomas does clearly indicate Francis was working to understand the meaning of the vision. Francis clearly believed, in Thomas’ account, that the vision was meant to foreshadow something as yet hidden, and the faculty of reason thus needed to be called upon to untangle that meaning. While Francis’ focused thought on the vision might seem to support the argument of the Orthodox Word article in that Francis dwelt excessively on the vision and that mental excess therefore gave rise to the bodily sign of stigmata, two observations mitigate against this support. First, we have no indication that Francis believed he was to embody the vision. Second, we must understand what the authors (and Bonaventure also notes mean when they refer to meditation, contemplation, and mere cogitation. To tease apart what was going on in Francis’ meditation and contemplation, we should digress a moment to look at the varieties of mind-exercises (and prayer) common in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, among trained theologians the terms ‘contemplation’, ‘meditation’, and ‘thinking’ had specific and shared meanings. While the specifics of each term might carry different nuances depending on the author and the author’s purposes, all agreed the three differed. I would hesitate to call them collectively ‘modes of thought’, ‘modes of consciousness’, or ‘methods of (directed) attention’ for reasons sketched below. Regardless, all require perception by consciousness.

While a full exposition of the techniques used in mediation and contemplation will have to await another post, we can nonetheless turn to one representative theologian of the late twelfth century whose influence was widespread in both Northern and Southern Europe, and particularly palpable in St Bonaventure’s writings. That theologian is Richard of St Victor, so called after the abbey in Paris of which he was Prior from about 1162 until his death in 1173. (The abbey of St Victor was one of the cathedral schools which ultimately gave rise to the University of Paris.) While one cannot say the Victorine ‘school’ of spirituality necessarily influenced Francis, it will be useful to keep the definitions used by them, and their particular manner of life, in mind as illustrative of the general currents of spirituality during Francis’ life. As already alluded to, Richard is also an important figure to examine because of the clear debt several of Bonaventure’s writings owe to him. This debt can be seen in Bonaventure’s account of Francis’ life and even more so in his use Journey of the Mind to God, which makes use of the Seraph who appeared to Francis as a meditative device, the meditation ultimately leading to Christ on the Mercy Seat above the Ark of the Covenant. (The theme of the Ark mirrors Richard’s use of the same furnishings in his Benjamin Major, also called the De Arca Mystica.)

While it is true that the Franciscans were invested in promoting certain forms of spirituality over others, particularly vis-a-vis the Dominicans, they nonetheless maintained much of the conceptual framework, if not also the methods, the Victorines had established. As one Victorine scholar as commented, Richard “defined the forms and categories which in respect of the highest mystical states were accepted by the writers of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. His fifth and sixth degrees and modes correspond roughly to what later was called ‘infused contemplation and full union’.” [Kirchberger 1957:64] Thus, at the very least, we can argue that the ideas regarding meditation and contemplation as developed by the School of St Victor furnish the context in which Francis’ method of prayer was understood and expounded upon by Francis’ contemporaries and by his successors.

In the Benjamin Major, Richarddivides conscious perception into categories of thinking, meditation, and contemplation. Briefly, contemplation associated with wonder; meditation with discursive reasoning. As Richard writes, thinking is ‘the careless glance of the soul prone to restless wandering.’ [Ben Major I.iv]. The faculty of thought ‘arises from the imagination.’ [ibid I.iii]

Meditation, on the other hand, is ‘an industrious attention of the mind concentrated diligently upon the investigation of some object’ or ‘the careful look of the soul zealously occupied in the search of truth.’ It is ‘always intent, however laborious the effort and notwithstanding difficulties of the mind, to grasp hard things, to break through obstacles and penetrate hidden things.’ Meditation ‘always tends to its final object, proceeding deliberately.’ Once the mind becomes occupied with teasing out the knowledge of something in particular, and concentrates its energies on that, then ‘thought passes over into meditation.’ [Ben Major I.iv] Meditation arises not from the imagination, but from reason [ibid I.iii].

Contemplation, however, is ‘a free and clear vision of the mind fixed upon the manifestation of wisdom in suspended wonder’ and ‘the clear and free glance of the soul bearing intently upon objects of perception, to its furtherest limits.’ Meditation passes into contemplation ‘when a truth has been long sought, and is at last discovered, [and] the mind … receives it greedily, wonders at it with exultation and for a long time rests therein in wonder… For it is the property of contemplation to adhere with wonder to the object which brings it joy.’ [Ben Maj I.iv] In contrast to the imaginative wellsprings of thinking, or the reasoning faculty of meditation, contemplation arises ‘from the intelligence’ [ibid I.iii]. Nevertheless, Richard notes, contemplation can embrace the use of the powers of imagination or reason, because it uses the highest of the three faculties, intelligence. ‘But in a special and strict sense, contemplation is so called when it treats of sublime things where the soul makes use of the pure intelligence.’

Richard goes on to say that contemplation does not operate in one way uniformly, and the rest of his work treats the varieties of contemplation discussed by the theologians of twelfth century Paris. In Book V of the Benjamin Major, Richard goes on to stress that contemplation can occur by divine grace, by effort added to by grace, and also through the teaching of others. Later, Richard associates various types of contemplation with the wings of the Cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant. [See Benjamin Major IV.1, V.3; Of the Four Degrees of Passionate Charity; and De Exterminatione Mali II.xv and III.xviii.] A detailed examination of his analysis, as well as the relation of meditation and contemplation to prayer, cannot be presented here, but it is important to note that Richard also associates contemplation with transfiguration and transformation in the Beloved, a theme which will be taken up again when we look at the death of Francis.

“St Bonaventure appreciated and used [Richard’s] whole scheme of the relationship between the imagination, the reason and the intelligence in the work of contemplation.” [Kirchberger 1957:74] As such, Bonaventure’s account of Francis’ vision is clearly tailored to an understanding of these three divisions. We can either treat Bonaventure’s narrative as an authentic presentation of Francis’ manner of attention, or we can dismiss it as mere assumption. If we dismiss it, then we are left with Thomas of Celano’s version of events, which may or may not have been shaped by Richard’s categories of thought. Reading Thomas in light of Richard, however, it seems clear how Bonaventure could interpret Thomas’ use of the words ‘understanding’ and the emphasis on directed attention as a description of meditation; likewise, the use of the word ‘wonder’ would point to moments of contemplation.

If we accept both accounts as valid, and if, in a word, thinking regards, meditation examines, and contemplation wonders, what was Francis doing? By the evidence of both accounts, Francis was engaged in contemplation first; what heights were reached are a matter of interpretation. (Even if the Fioretti‘s account were acceptable, Francis is portrayed before the vision as focused on one thought, namely, how to imitate Christ best, which is meditation by definition: attention on the investigation of one object.) Following the appearance of the Seraph — and the type of Angel is significant in the Medieval context — Francis can be interpreted as either meditating, or using the faculty of reason in the midst of contemplation, since contemplation can encompass the lower degrees. (Richard says nothing about the mutual exclusivity of meditation and contemplation.) The topic of meditation in the midst of the vision was specified in our sources: what did the Seraph of the Crucifixion portend? Why was the Seraph both immaterial and passible (i.e. suffering)?

Having looked at the similarities and differences in Thomas of Celano and Bonaventure, we then turned to a brief examination of how thinking, meditation, and contemplation were understood by Francis’ contemporaries. Although we did not on how methods of prayer intersected with methods of meditation, we did demonstrate that the source texts suggest Francis was engaged specifically in meditation or contemplation. Meditation, as we mentioned earlier, is associated with deliberate reasoning, while contemplation hovers and rests in wonder, taking in swaths of intelligible things with its vision. Neither are characteristic of hysterical delusional activity, however much the description of a meditative topic might be elaborated in very sensorily-oriented terminology. The actual topic of the vision itself — the Seraph — and the manifestation of Francis’ transformation as a result of his contemplative activity — the Stigmata — have yet to be contextualised, both in terms of Francis’ own time as well as in terms of questions an Orthodox Christian might raise about these two images. An examination of how Francis’ vision was interpreted and its meaning integrated into the theological world vision of his hagiographers will therefore be taken up in the next section.

Earliest Accounts: St Francis, Stigmata, and Polemic in the Orthodox Church (Part 2)

This post continues the previous one regarding the polemic surrounding Francis of Assisi’s reception of the stigmata on Mt Alverna is Tuscany during August-September 1224.  Here, I will present the account of St Francis’ experience as related by two sources much earlier than the one used by the author of the Orthodox Word article.  The first account is by Thomas of Celano; the second is drawn from Bonaventure’s Life of Francis.

  Thomas of Celano’s Account

Thomas of Celano was a disciple of Francis, present with him from around 1213 to 1216, though apparently not one of the inner circle of Francis’ companions.  Although he was absent the last two years of Francis’ life, during which time Francis bore the stigmata, he would have remained in touch with Francis’ companions who could have provided him with his sources of information for this time period.  Thomas was present at Francis’ canonisation on 16 July 1228, and by February 1229 had written the first life of Francis at the direction of Pope Gregory IX.  His account is thus not the textual basis on which Francis’ sainthood was decided; however, it shaped most subsequent accounts. The work can also be viewed as the earliest ‘official’ understanding (by the Latin church) of Francis’ particular sanctity and way of life. Thomas’ account of Francis’ reception of the stigmata appears in this First Life. Between 1244 and 1247, however, Thomas also wrote a Second Life of Francis for the Minister-General of the order. This second work fills in some lacunae left by the initial Vita. (All quotes are from Howell’s 1908 translation, and therefore ought to be in the public domain.)

In Thomas’ telling, the appearance of the stigmata is framed by a chapter in which Francis sought in prayer to know, “in what manner, by what way, or by what desire he might most perfectly cleave to the Lord God in accordance with the counsel and good pleasure of His will.” Francis therefore prayed prostrate that God would show him His will by opening the Gospels at random, and that Francis would have the strength to do what was God’s will for him. Francis opened the Gospels to the Passion narrative. He repeated this three times, each time his gaze falling on similar passages recounting how Jesus suffered tribulation. Francis took this to mean, “that it behooved him through much anguish and much warfare to enter the Kingdom of God.”

Earlier, in the second part of the First Life, Thomas had recorded that Francis, in imitating Jesus, would spend one part of his time profiting his neighbour, and one part in contemplation and repose (meaning solitude). Thomas avers that Francis was engaged in continual prayer, and that this frequent contemplation led to intimacy with God. (Possible ‘methods’ of contemplation that Francis might have used will be treated in a subsequent post, drawing on some of St Bonaventure’s writings concerning the topic.) Thomas thus already set up in the reader’s mind the idea that Francis was engaged in an earnest pursuit of imitating Jesus’ earthly life as closely as possible.

In chapter three, the vision on Mt Alverna is recounted. In Thomas’ account, the earliest we possess, the vision is not preceded by any particular notice; it just happens. Francis is not contemplating anything in particular, though he was in retreat celebrating the Fast or Lent of St Michael. The Lent of St Michael is observed between August 15 and September 29 (which is the Feast of St Michael, or Michaelmas, in the Latin Rite). As Thomas writes: “While [Francis] dwelt in the hermitage, which, from the place in which it is situate, is called Alverna, two years before he gave back is soul to heaven, he saw in a vision of God a man like a seraph having six wings, standing over him with hands outstretched and feet joined together, fixed to a cross. Two wings were raised above his head, two were spread for flight, and two veiled the whole body. Now, when the blessed servant of the Most High saw this, he was filled with exceedingly great wonder, but he could not understand what this vision might mean.”

For Thomas, the vision of a Seraph is like any other vision of angels; it provokes wonder in the beholder. Later, we will look at one possibility of how a Seraph might have come to be associated with the Cross, via the ever popular Judah Cyriacus legend. In any event, Thomas goes on to say that while Francis was delighted by the beauty of the seraph’s expression, he was fearful of the angel’s suffering. “Thus he arose, so to speak, sorrowful and glad; and joy and grief alternated in him. He anxiously pondered what this vision might portend, and his spirit laboured sore to come at the understanding of it. And while he continued without any clear perception of its meaning, and the strangeness of the vision was perplexing his heart, marks of nails began to appear in his hands and feet, such as he had seen a little while before in the Man crucified who had stood over him…” (Emphasis mine.)

Thomas goes on to describe the stigmata in detail. “His hands and feet seemed pierced in the midst by nails, the heads of the nails appearing in the inner parts of the hands and the upper part of the feet.” The ends of the nails were bent and driven back. Francis’ right side was overlaid with a scar, but often shed blood.

In contrast to the presentation in the Fioretti, Francis’ contemplation followed the vision; it did not precede it. Nor does the text allow us to posit that Francis was practising a sort of visualisation technique that might have led to such a vision. Additionally, a close reading of the text demonstrates that Francis wondered at the meaning of the vision: words like portend, understanding, perception of meaning, strangeness perplexing the heart, all point to a desire on the part of Francis to meditate on a puzzle in need of deciphering, or a revelation in need of interpretation. It seems that he did not arrive at an answer until after the stigmata appeared in his body. Only then was a meaning assigned to the vision: the Seraph appeared to Francis in order to prophecy Francis’ own bodily transformation, and as a result of his thus far perfect imitation of Jesus’ life. (In later imagery, i.e. in frescoes of Francis’ vision, rays shoot from the Seraph’s wounds to Francis’ body. However, the text does not offer such an account.)

Bonaventure’s Account

The source for Bonaventure which I am using is the easily accessible Classics of Western Spirituality series, edited by Ewert Cousins and prefaced by Ignatius Brady, OFM in 1978.

Bonaventure, a Doctor of the Church for Roman Catholics, holds an important place in the history of medieval Latin spirituality. Being a professor at the University of Paris (1254-1257), Minister General of the Franciscan Order (from 1257), and a Cardinal, Bonaventure exerted wide influence on his contemporaries. Together with Thomas Aquinas, also at the University of Paris at the time, he defended the development of the two mendicant orders, Franciscan and Dominican. He was also an advisor to various popes. His influence over the popes of Rome was not limited to the thirteenth century, however; while a student of theology, the current pope, Benedict XVI, wrote his doctoral dissertation on Bonaventure. As Cousins sums up, “Grounding himself in Augustine and drawing from Anselm, he brought together the cosmic vision of the Pseudo-Dionysius with the psychological acumen of Bernard of Clairvaux and Richard of St Victor… In a certain sense, Bonaventure achieved for spirituality what Thomas [Aquinas] did for theology and Dante for medieval culture as a whole.” Therefore, if one wishes to understand pre-Tridentine, medieval Latin spirituality, especially as it relates to theology, a knowledge of Bonaventure is indispensable.

Bonaventure composed his Life of Francis around 1263, drawing on the earlier works by Thomas of Celano and Julian of Speyer. (Francis was canonised when Bonaventure was 11 years old, but Bonaventure had earlier been saved from an illness by invoking Francis’ intercession when Bonaventure was a boy.) The intervening forty years from Thomas of Celano’s First Life (and twenty since his Second Life) allowed Bonaventure’s hagiography to place Francis in the framework of a consistent theology, especially since this work followed Bonaventure’s treatises on the Journey of the Mind to God (1259) and The Tree of Life (1260). Bonaventure’s organisation and interpretation of the saint’s life is therefore somewhat unique, inasmuch as its chronology and presentation is subordinated to other concerns. The biography was officially approved in 1266, and served as both a political and peace-making work for the Order (the details of which do not need to be addressed at the moment; suffice it to say that some wanted to take Francis’ example in a much more zealous or radical direction than others found prudent).

For Bonaventure, Francis’ life is a quintessential example of the spiritual journey, and as already mentioned, his account of Francis’ life should be understood in the context of two prior works, his Journey of the Soul (or Mind) to God and the Tree of Life, a meditation on the life of Christ. In the former work, Bonaventure uses the six wings of the Seraph of Francis’ vision to describe the three paired roads by which the mystic can reach the sort of rapture in contemplation of God experienced by St Francis. Those three roads are consideration of nature, the soul, and God. A fruitful comparison could be made by comparing this ‘method’ with that of the thirteenth century Athonite fathers’ emphasis on contemplating the logoi of all created things. The Tree of Life continues that line of thought, and “presupposes the theological vision of the former treatise.” Since my current interest is in presenting only the experience of the stigmata by Francis, I will return to these works at a later date. I have presented them only so that the careful reader will know how to contextualise Bonaventure’s Life of Francis.

Bonaventure’s account of Francis’ reception of the Stigmata is preceded by chapters on Francis’ zeal for prayer (in chapter X), and a much earlier chapter on humility (chapter VI). In Bonaventure’s telling, as Francis began the fast of St Michael, he “experienced more abundantly than usual an overflow of the sweetness of heavenly contemplation, he burned with a stronger flame of heavenly desires, and began to experience more fully the gifts of heavenly grace.” Bonaventure likens this spiritual grace to being borne aloft like the faithful and prudent servant searching out God’s good pleasure, to which Francis wished to wholly conform himself. Inspired to to take up the Gospel, Francis had a companion take the sacred book and open it three times in the name of the Trinity. Passages narrating the Passion were revealed each time. From this, “Francis learned that now he must imitate Christ’s passion, just as he had worked before this in imitating Christ’s earlier life.

As Bonaventure foreshadows regarding Francis’ “seraphic” ardour at this time, “by his sweet compassion he was being transformed into Christ…”

Bonaventure continues, “On a certain morning about the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross [September 14], while Francis was praying on the mountainside, he saw a seraph… descend…” Like Thomas’ version, Bonaventure describes Francis’ joy at the vision; however, Bonaventure says that Francis felt compassionate sorrow for the suffering in the vision, rather than fear, as in Thomas’ account. In both cases, Francis wondered at the vision. Bonaventure specifies the topic of Francis’ meditation: the incompatibility of human weakness and the Passion with the immortality of the Seraph. It allowed, in other words, a meditation based on analogy to the hypostatic union and the kenosis of the Word: here is an angelic being who yet also can suffer, imitating Christ’s earthly life.

“Eventually [Francis] understood by a revelation from the Lord that divine providence had shown him this vision so that as Christ’s lover, he might learn in advance that he was to be totally transformed into the likeness of Christ crucified, not by martyrdom of his flesh, but by the fire of his love consuming his soul [literally, incendium mentis, ‘conflagration of the soul or mind’].” (I should note in this context that Bonaventure also wrote a work called The Triple Way or Fire of Love.) “As the vision disappeared, it left in his heart a marvelous ardour and imprinted on his body markings that were no less marvelous. Immediately the marks of nails began to appear in his hands and feet…”

Bonaventure adds something more to the account, however: Afterwards, not wanting to publicise what had happened, Francis called some friars and sought their counsel about the stigmata, “speaking in general terms” so as not to reveal what had happened. A friar named Illuminato told Francis not to bury the talent with which God had entrusted him. Taking Illuminato’s advice, Francis recounted his vision, adding the vision also spoke, but that Francis would not reveal those words. Neither Thomas of Celano nor Julian of Speyer mention anything about the vision speaking. The experience on Mt Alverna, therefore, was more than merely visual for Francis; it was also auditory. What those words might have been, one can only speculate.

In Bonaventure’s version, we see that while Francis was aflame with love for God during his yearly retreat at La Verna in Tuscany, the topic of his prayers remains unnamed. The seraph descends while Francis is at prayer, true; but the marks of stigmata appear before Francis has much time to contemplate the meaning of the vision. We have no indication that Francis was using any particular techniques of meditation; indeed, Bonaventure repeatedly says ‘contemplation’, which ultimately came to be distinguished from ‘discursive meditation’ in Latin theology. Meditation has a topic; contemplation enters into silence — or if it uses words, they are short phrases such as the Jesus prayer, or that favourite of Francis: Deus meus et omnes, ‘my God and my all’. If Francis was in the midst of a silence brought about by his prayer, and he had an experience with visual and auditory components, that experience can hardly be held to be the result of delusion brought about by specific practices of imaging Jesus in his mind’s eye during that prayer. Rather, the vision in Bonaventure’s account, like that in Thomas of Celano’s, appears to have been rather spontaneous.

I do not have space here to include the account in the Fioretti (likely composed around 1390) for comparison. The Fioretti, or Little Flowers of St Francis, is the work used by the author of the Orthodox Word article. Because the argument in the Orthodox Word was based on a late work, and because it assumed a type of mental exercise not clearly in evidence, the argument presented in the Orthodox Word article is invalid and must be reassessed.

In my next post, I hope to explore some issues raised in the two accounts presented above. Those issues include the purpose of the various hagiographies; an exploration on holiness in context, which may examine the questions of why stigmata? and why a seraph? It also will note how Francis became a node uniting several medieval devotions, and presenting an alternative masculinity or way of imitating Christ’s life, in counterpoint to the warrior-image of male Crusaders at the time.

St Francis, Stigmata, and Polemic in the Orthodox Church (Part 1/6)

October 4 is the feast day of the Latin saint, Francis of Assisi.  Francis’ sainthood is a matter of dispute between some Orthodox Christians (by which I mean members of the Greek, Russian, Serbian, and Romanian churches; or more generally put, the Byzantine Orthodox church), and this post is motivated by an experience I have already referred to earlier on How the Church retained me through my 20s, but lost me by my 30s.  Briefly, when I was on Mt Athos some years ago, I was given a copy of an article published in The Orthodox Word. Presumably, I was considered too ‘Catholic’ and not ‘Orthodox’ enough, and this article would set me straight with regard to how Francis of Assisi was a deluded man and not a saint at all.

The article began in response to a question posed by a layperson. She had noticed some of her Italian Catholic friends had a devotion to Padre Pio. Padre Pio (1887 – 1968) was a Southern Italian monk who was marked by the stigmata, the five wounds of Christ. In Padre Pio’s case, these wounds developed spontaneously and slowly. He had reported to one of his superiors that his hands and feet were getting sore. He was told to pray about these sufferings, but the pain did not cease. Eventually the wounds broke open, and he bore their marks for the rest of his life.

None of Padre Pio’s biography, however, was mentioned by the priest who answered the question. Instead, in order to demonstrate the errors of Latin Catholicism  (in which Padre Pio must certainly have participated, being a Latin friar), the author of the article decided to present an account of the first known stigmatist, Francis of Assisi. Using the Fioretti di San Francesco, the priest attempted to demonstrate that Francis’ reception of the stigmata was due to self-delusion and a meditative technique filled with visualisations, the result of which was a demonic marking on Francis’ body, mocking the Passion of the Incarnate Word. All other stigmatists (none of them named, but among whom is another Latin Saint and Doctor of the Church, Catherine of Siena), by implication, were therefore also equally deluded into error.

Rather than convincing me of the Truths of Orthodoxy, however, the article merely left me annoyed by its unscholarly character and the fact that it devolved into mere Catholic bashing. When I expressed the former sentiment to one of the monks, he just rolled his eyes and walked away.  Another monk was more keen to hear my objections and looked thoughtful about them. (Both monks were Americans, and converts from Protestant churches.)  One of the laypeople I encountered at another monastery, a convert to Orthodoxy from the Episcopal church who frequently visited the Holy Mountain, was very keen to defend the article.  He urged me to read the original Latin life of Francis to which the article referred; surely then I would be convinced. I pointed out to this young man (he was my age at the time, actually, about 24 or 25) that the article referred to the Fioretti, a rather late work, written in Italian.

Nonetheless, I suppose I have followed his advice, and followed up on my own criticism of the Orthodox Word article.  Leaving aside the Fioretti, which I read when I was 15, and which did influence my own spirituality, I have turned to two of the earliest works on Francis life, both of which were key texts in fashioning the canonical image of Francis as a saint in the eyes of the Roman church.   (The Fioretti  influenced my own spiritual life in terms of introducing me to the concept of Holy Obedience, the simple prayer Deus meus et omnes, ‘my God and [my] all, and a love of a poverty which imitates the kenosis of the Incarnate Word.)

I can agree with the author of the Orthodox Word article that spirituality differs across geography and is at the root of why the schism between East and West continues. Indeed, one can argue differences in spirituality — and disjunctions in the theology which informed and continues to inform those spiritualities — is why the Protestant schism occurred between the Latin and German churches as well.  However, I do not agree that Francis is an exemplar of all the delusion (a term which really needs to be defined) that Catholic spirituality and theology has come to embrace; in fact, what I have read in the earlier Lives mitigates against this belief. In the context of Francis and the stigmata specifically, I strongly disagree with the idea popular in some Orthodox circles, that Orthodoxy never went through an ’emotive’ phase devoted to the Passion. In fact, it did, in the twelfth century, roughly contemporaneous with the lifetime of Francis himself.  I have touched on that devotion in a post treating Heraclios, the Crusades, and the True Cross.

In order to examine the case of Francis’ stigmata more closely, in Part 2, I will present substantial sections from two early works which treat that event specifically. The first example is from Thomas of Celano; the second from St Bonaventure.  Another early work, written by Julian of Speyer and roughly contemporaneous with Thomas of Celano’s First Life, may treat the stigmata, but I have not read that Vita. As will be discussed in Part 3, these accounts differ substantially from that presented in the Fioretti, and on which the Orthodox Word author’s argument is based.  Part 3 will also take up the question of authenticity and miracles after Francis’ death, and provide links to various references mentioned in this series of posts.