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.


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.