St Bernadino of Siena

20th May (1444)

St Bernadino, patron Saint of Siena, was born at Massa di Carrera where his father was governor. After his parents died he was brought up by an aunt. He studied law and joined a brotherhood devoted to the care of the sick. At the age of twenty, during an outbreak of plague in the city, he and some companions took charge of the local hospital (where most of the staff had died) and he later nursed his aunt until her death.

In response to a vision that he should look after men’s souls as well as their bodies, he gave away all his possessions and became a Franciscan in 1402, and lived at Colombaio near Siena and later in Florence.

In 1417 he began his career as a popular preacher in Milan; later travelling all over Italy, on foot, sometimes preaching for three or four hours and often several sermons on the same day. When he began his preaching ministry his voice was weak, but with constant exercise and practice it became much more powerful. He moved his audiences to both tears and laughter, using mimicry, acting, clowning and denounced gambling, witchcraft, superstition and power-politics.

At the end of his sermons he would hold up a tablet depicting the holy monogram IHS surrounded by golden rays. This device became so popular that a former dice maker and playing-card printer, who had lost his business because of Bernadino’s fervent anti-gambling stance, was able to

launch a new business making plaques with the sacred monogram. These sold in great quantities and the man made a fortune.

Bernadino negotiated the conclusion of a civil war in Perugia where a chapel commemorates his skill as a peacemaker. He became Vicar General of the Observant branch of the Friars in 1437 and set up schools of theology, saying that ignorance was just as dangerous as riches. It is thought he wrote the Statutes for the Observants in 1440.

In 1443 he resigned from the Order and went back to travelling and preaching. However, he became ill and in 1444, having preached fifty sermons on consecutive days, he set out for Naples and died on 20th May 1444 at Aquila, where he was buried. He was canonised by Nicolas V in 1450.

Medieval artists depict him as small and emaciated, with deep burning eyes, holding the IHS tablet. Sometimes three mitres are portrayed at his feet, depicting the three bishoprics which he refused. His cult was spread in England, particularly by the Observant Friars, who made their foundation at Greenwich in 1482, and became a province of five houses in 1499.

A fervent and saintly man, Bernadino used laughter, tears and visual aids to get his message across – he would probably not be out of place in the public eye today.

Angela Newton

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Last revised 30th April 2005