Bernardino (or Bernadine, or Bernardin) was an Italian priest, Franciscan missionary, and is a Catholic saint. He is known in the Roman Catholic Church as “the Apostle of Italy” for his efforts to revive the country’s Catholic faith during the 15th century. His preaching was frequently directed against gambling, witchcraft, sodomy (with an emphasis on homosexuality) and usury—particularly as practised by Jews.
Bernardino was born in 1380 to the noble Albizeschi family in Massa Marittima, Tuscany, a Sienese town of which his father, Tollo, was then governor. Left orphaned at six, he was raised by a pious aunt. In 1397 after a course of civil and canon law, he joined the Confraternity of Our Lady attached to the hospital of Santa Maria della Scala. Three years later, when the plague visited Siena, he ministered to the plague-stricken, and, assisted by ten companions, took upon himself for four months entire charge of this hospital. He escaped the plague but was so exhausted that a fever confined him for several months. In 1403 he joined the Observant branch of the Order of Friars Minor, with a strict observance of Francis’ Rule. He was ordained a priest in 1404 and was commissioned as a preacher in 1405. About 1406 Vincent Ferrer, while preaching at Alexandria in Piedmont, allegedly foretold that his mantle should descend upon one who was then listening to him, and said that he would return to France and Spain leaving to Bernardino the task of evangelizing the remaining peoples of Italy.
The period of Bernardino’s public engagement coincided with a time when the Catholic Church was responding actively (through civil and armed means) to pressures that it regarded as heretical, and which were gaining popularity in southern France and northern Italy, as well as some reformed monastic orders. Instead of remaining cloistered and preaching only during the liturgy, Bernardino preached directly to the public.
For more than 30 years, Bernardino preached all over Italy, and played a great part in the religious revival of the early fifteenth century. Although he had a weak and hoarse voice, he is said to have been one of the greatest preachers of his time. His style was simple, familiar, and abounding in imagery. Cynthia Polecritti notes that the texts of Bernardine’s sermons “are acknowledged masterpieces of colloquial Italian.” He was an elegant and captivating preacher. His use of popular imagery and creative language drew large crowds to hear his reflections. And, as Polecritti also notes, the subject matter of his sermons reveals much about the contemporary context of 15th-century Italy.
He traveled from place to place, remaining nowhere above a few weeks. These journeys were all made on foot. In the towns, the crowds assembled to hear him were at times so great, that it became necessary to erect a pulpit on the market-place. Like Vincent Ferrer, he usually preached at dawn. His hearers, so as to ensure themselves standing room, would arrive beforehand, many coming from far distant villages. The sermons often lasted three or four hours. He was invited to Ferrara in 1424, where he preached against the excess of luxury and immodest apparel. In Bologna, he spoke out against gambling, much to the dissatisfaction ot the card manufacturers and sellers. Returning to Siena in April 1425, he preached there for fifty consecutive days. His success was claimed to be remarkable. “Bonfires of vanities” were held at his sermon sites, where people threw mirrors, high-heeled shoes, perfumes, locks of false hair, cards, dice, chessmen, and other frivolities to be burned. Bernardino enjoined his listeners to abstain from blasphemy, indecent conversation, and games of hazard, and to observe feast days.
In January 1427 he was in Orvieto where his main topic seems to have been the practice of usury, urging the executive to take stringent steps against all such as were addicted to this business, of whom the majority were Jews. (In Milan, he was often visited by a merchant who urge him to inveigh strenuously against usury, only to find that his visitor was himself the greatest usurer of the place, whose activities were prompted by a wish to lessen competition).
Both while he was alive and after his death (the first edition of his works, for the most part elaborate sermons, was printed at Lyon in 1501), Bernardino’s sermons were unapologetic: of severe moralizing temperament, he inveighed against various classes of people he believed were particularly responsible for the moral corruption of Christendom. He spoke out against witchcraft, and called for sodomites, i.e., homosexuals, to be either isolated from society or eliminated from the human community. He thus became the moral major domo of what historian Robert Moore has called “the persecuting society” of late medieval Christian Europe.
Bernardino is particularly resented today as being a “major protagonist of Christian anti-semitism”. He called for Jews to be isolated from the wider communities in which they lived; blaming the poverty of local Christians on Jewish usury. His audiences often used his words to reinforce actions against Jews. His preaching left a legacy of resentment on the part of Jews.
On sodomy, he keenly pointed out the reputation of the Italians beyond their own borders. He particularly decried Florentine lenience—in Verona, he told his hearers, a man was quartered and his limbs hung from the city gates; in Genoa, men were regularly burned; and in Venice a sodomite had been tied to a column along with a barrel of pitch and brushwood and set to fire. He advised the people of Siena to do the same. In 1424, in the course of a Lenten sermon preached in Santa Croce, he admonished his hearers:
Whenever you hear sodomy mentioned, each and every one of you spit on the ground and clean your mouth out as well. If they don’t want to change their ways by any other means, maybe they will change when they’re made fools of. Spit hard! Maybe the water of your spit will extinguish their fire.
Especially known for his devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus, Bernardine devised a symbol—IHS, the first three letters of the name of Jesus in Greek, in Gothic letters on a blazing sun. This was to displace the insignia of factions (for example, Guelphs and Ghibellines). The devotion spread, and the symbol began to appear in churches, homes and public buildings. Opposition arose from those who thought it a dangerous innovation. It was said that he calmed strife-torn cities, that feuds and factionalism were reconciled by his counsel and that miracles took place.
In 1427 he was summoned to Rome to stand trial on charges of heresy himself for his promotion of the devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus. Theologians including Paulus Venetus were present to give their opinions. Bernardino was found innocent of heresy, and he impressed Pope Martin V sufficiently that Martin requested he preach in Rome. He was acquitted and thereupon preached every day for 80 days. Bernardino’s zeal was such that he would prepare up to four drafts of a sermon before starting to speak. That same year, he was offered the bishopric of Siena, but declined in order to maintain his monastic and evangelical activities. In 1431, he toured Tuscany, Lombardy, Romagna, and Ancona before returning to Siena to prevent a war against Florence. Also in 1431, he declined the bishopric of Ferrara, and in 1435 he declined the bishopric of Urbino.
John Capistrano was his friend, and James of the Marches was his disciple during these years. Both Pope Martin V and Pope Eugene IV were urged by their cardinals to condemn Bernardino, but both almost instantly acquitted him. A trial at the Council of Basel ended with an acquittal too. The Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund sought Bernardino’s counsel and intercession and Benardino accompanied him to Rome in 1433 for his coronation.
Soon thereafter, he withdrew again to Capriola to compose a further series of sermons. He resumed his missionary labours in 1436, but was forced to abandon them when he became vicar-general of the Observant branch of the Franciscans in Italy in 1438.
Bernardino had worked to grow the Observants from the outset of his religious life: although he was not in fact its founder (the origins of the Observants, or Zelanti, can be traced back to the middle of the fourteenth century.) Nevertheless, Bernardino became to the Observants what St. Bernard had been to the Cistercians, their principal support and indefatigable propagator. Instead of one hundred and thirty Friars constituting the Observance in Italy at Bernardino’s reception into the order, it counted over four thousand shortly before his death. Bernardino also founded, or reformed, at least three hundred convents of Friars. He also sent missionaries into Asia, and he is credited with helping ensure that many ambassadors from different schismatic nations attended the Council of Florence.
Being Vicar General inevitably cut back his opportunities to preach, but he continued to speak to the public when he could. Having in 1442 persuaded the pope to finally accept his resignation as vicar-general so that he might give himself more undividedly to preaching, Bernardino again resumed his missionary work. Despite a Papal Bull issued by Pope Eugene IV in 1443 which charged Bernardino to preach the indulgence for the Crusade against the Turks, there is no record of his having done so. In 1444, notwithstanding his increasing infirmities, Bernardino, desirous that there should be no part of Italy which had not heard his voice, set out to the Kingdom of Naples.
Reports of miracles attributed to Bernardino multiplied rapidly after his death, and Bernardino was canonized as a saint in 1450, only six years after his death, by Pope Nicholas V.
Bernardino lived into the early days of the print and was the subject of portraits in his lifetime, as well as a death-mask, which were copied to make prints, so that he is one of the earliest saints to have a fairly consistent appearance in art; though many Baroque images, such as that by El Greco, are idealized compared to the realistic ones made in the decades after his death.
After his death, the Franciscans promoted an iconographical program of diffusion of images of Bernardino, which was second only to that of the founder of the order. As such, he is one of the earliest saints whose appearance was given a distinct and readily recognisable iconography. Artists of the late medieval and Renaissance periods often represented him as small and emaciated, with three mitres at his feet (representing the three bishoprics which he had rejected) and holding in his hand the IHS monogram with rays emanating from it (representing his devotion to the “Holy Name of Jesus”), which was his main attribute. He appears to have been a favourite in the works Luca della Robbia, and one of the finest examples of Renaissance art includes relief carvings of the saint, which can be seen on the oratory of Perugia Cathedral.
A portrait is known to have circulated in Siena just after Bernardino’s death which, on the basis of physiognomic similarities with his death mask at L’Aquila, is believed to have been a good likeness. It is thought probable that many subsequent depictions of the saint derive from this portrait.The most famous depictions of Bernardino are found in the cycle of frescoes of his life, which were executed towards the end of the fifteenth century by Pinturicchio in the Bufalini Chapel of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, Rome. There is also an altar panel at the Alte Pinakothek in Berlin, done by Pietro Perugino, known as The Virgin appearing to St. Bernard. This shows the saint experiencing a vision of the Virgin Mary.
Saint Bernardino is the Roman Catholic patron saint of advertising, communications, compulsive gambling, respiratory problems, as well as any problems involving the chest area. He is the patron saint of Carpi, Italy; the Philippine barangay Kay-Anlog; the barangay Tuna in Cardona, Rizal; and the diocese of San Bernardino, California. Siena College, a Franciscan Catholic liberal arts college in New York state, was named after him and placed under his spiritual patronage.
His cult also spread to England at an early period, and was particularly promulgated by the Observant Friars, who first established themselves in the country in Greenwich, in 1482, not forty years after his death, but who were later suppressed.