Faith through Art: Saint Bernardine and the Holy Name of Jesus
By Norman Farmer
Few preaching clergy have so ardently embraced the concept of “Faith through Art” as did the St. Fra Bernardine of Siena (1380-1444). Even in the early years of his extraordinary preaching career, it was known everywhere on the Italian peninsula that St. Vincent Ferrar (1350-1419), the great Dominican preacher of the previous generation, had already identified him as a new St. Paul, calling him “the apostle of Italy.”
Fra Bernardine did not disappoint. And much credit for his enormous success goes to his love for art and his unique ability to think visually, as artists must, about tangible things that inhabit sensible space. In his sermons he invariably invited his listeners to “see” this or that, and then verbally and persuasively connected things they were “seeing” with the eyes of their minds and the thoughts of his teachings. He conveyed a profound sense of wonder at the way artists could connect the sensible and the divine worlds and strove to do likewise.
To evoke the glories of the Assumption, for example, he would recall “All the angels turning joyously, singing, dancing and making great circles, as you see painted over there upon the Camollia gate” of Siena. On another occasion, preaching against the civil strife rampant in Siena, he directed his listeners to reflect on Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s great fresco depictions of Good and Bad Government and Peace in the Palazzo Publico: “Here is treated the Prophet David seeking peace in this world, which he could not find ... Lo, you have painted it in your palace, for to see Peace painted is a joy; so is it a sorrow to see War painted on the other side.” When he spoke, people “saw” both natural and divine realities. And they listened.
This capacity to think both visually and verbally led “the Apostle of Italy” to become the great saint of the Holy Name as we remember him today. Early in his career he gave to the mystery of the Holy Name of Jesus the tangible identity of an image that became as familiar as the Chi Rho of Constantine: the Y ħ S monogram for which he remains famous and which the Jesuit Order took for its own symbol. In this fresco portrait by Sano di Pietro (1406-1481) as in literally thousands of other strikingly realistic Bernardino images upon altarpieces and the walls of churches, convents and public buildings throughout Italy, he displays the monogram in precisely the manner contemporaries described: “filled with the love of the Holy spirit and the Love of Jesus” he would expose the tablet with great joy and solemnity, at which on some occasions thousands would kneel, “bareheaded and crying and weeping with sweetness and tenderness for love of Jesus.” On other occasions they would process through the city streets behind him as he bore the monogram aloft.
A second painting by Sano di Pietro shows Fra Bernardine preaching in the vast fan-shaped Campo before the Palazzo Publico in Siena, which has been converted from a civic space to a sacred space by draperies, an altar, a confessional chapel and a tall pulpit. It depicts a real event (a rarity in early 15th century art) when on June 6, 1425, the friar convinced the Sienese to place the monogram of the Holy Name above all civic banners and symbols upon the facade of the city hall! What is more, the painting shows this event as a very literal enactment of Philippians 2:5-11: “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend ... and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord ...”
Literally a visual sermon, the monogram is comprised of three Greek letters (pronounced iēsous), painted in gold on a blue ground (signifying hope) and set within a golden sunburst that emits 12 brilliant rays. The rays could refer to various groups, the apostles or the tribes of Israel or the fruits of the Holy Spirit. But Bernardine always preached that they signified the mystery of the 12 virtues or powers of the Holy Name of Jesus – virtues that lodge mystically in the thoughts and prayers of every viewer who looks upon the monogram and sounds (silently or audibly) the Holy Name that is “the Light of the World” (Jn 8:12) as well as (1) the refuge of sinners, (2) the remedy of the spiritually ill, (3) the defense of the militant and (4) the consolation of the afflicted. It is also (5) the help of the proficient, (6) the succor of the wavering, (7) the honor of the steadfast and (8) the theme of the preacher. Finally, the Holy Name is as well (9) the sigh of those who keep it in mind, (10) the support of those who pray, (11) the fruit of those who try and (12) the reward of those who persevere.
With the Collect for May 20 (his feast day) we pray: “Oh God, who gave the Priest Saint Bernardine of Siena a great love for the holy Name of Jesus, grant, through his merits and prayers, that we may ever be set aflame with the spirit of your love.”