Pietro Lorenzetti, Contemporary Polyptych of the
Life and Miracles of St Umilta`
Another website on St Umilta: http://www.mw.mcmaster.ca/scriptorium/umilta.html§
e know so little about Julian of Norwich. We know a great deal, through historical documents and through paintings and sculpture, about her somewhat earlier sister, la Beata Umiltą, Blessed Humility, who was in turn a wife, a mother, a nun, an anchoress and an abbess.
Rosanesa was born in Faenza to noble parents named Elimonte and Richilda in 1226. At fifteen she was married to Ugolotto, bearing him two sons who both died following their baptisms. She begged her husband to make a reciprocal vow of chastity. At first he drowned his sorrows in fun, then fell ill and consented, becoming himself a monk, while she became a nun, both of the double Monastery of St Perpetua, in 1250. Rosanesa thus went from freedom to unconditional obedience, from an abundance of wealth to monastic poverty, from marriage to total consecration to God. She mortified herself by taking on the most humble and servile jobs. The other Sisters thought this was a passing phase but the Prior of the two monasteries understood her virtue and named her anew as ' Humility', Umiltą.
Rosanesa persuades her husband Ugolotto to their vows of chastity
The nuns would eat in silence, one of their
number reading to them from a book. Umiltą, though from a rich
and noble family, was illiterate. One day, in fun, the other
Sisters asked her to read. She obeyed humbly and from her
mouth came words of the highest things, yet none of which were
to be found written in the book from which she supposedly
read. What she said was, ' Do not
despise the work of God, which is always true and just, though
it is hard. In heaven shall be raised what is always humble '. Was she inspired? She was taught, humbly,
to read and to write in Latin by her sisters, and her Sermons
testify to the richness of her mind. It is said that when she
dictated her sermons, the whitest of doves, with golden feet
and beak, would appear at her ears, and that when it rained
while she dictated, her shoulder remained dry.
Umiltą's inspired reading in the refectory, Faenza
Umiltą became ill with cancer of the kidneys,
causing a nauseous smell from her rotting flesh. She begged
God that, if it were his will, he would not inflict such
disturbance upon the nursing Sisters. Immediately the
Infirmarian Sister saw that the wound had healed. In her four
years at St Perpetua she gained esteem and admiration. She
felt the need for more isolation, for the life of a hermit. In
the night a mysterious voice whispered, 'Soror Humilitas, surge; meque sequere,' 'Rise up, Sister Umiltą, and follow me'.
She did not ask 'Who are you? Where are you taking me?'
Instead, quickly, she made the sign of the cross and dressed
for travel, taking her Office book and leaving it on the high
wall of the monastery, where it was found the next day in
evidence of this impossible and mysterious flight. The doors
had remained locked all night. Yet Umiltą, crossing the river,
had remained dry.
Umiltą leaves her convent
She came to the island of St Martin where
Sister Philippa, a wise and severe woman, opened the door to
her. In the morning the Prior and her uncle Niccolo learned
about the locked door and the Psalter left on the wall. They
gave permission for Umiltą to live in a secret and sealed
room. Prayer and penance, bread and water, and bitter herbs,
were to be her life (ut Christum
pauperem sequatur paupercula).
The city spoke of her as a saint.
The Sick Vallombrosan Monk
A Vallombrosan monk was about to have his feet
amputated, but desired instead to be brought to Umiltą. She
signed his feet with the sign of the cross and he was healed.
Umilta` cures the monk of his gangrenous leg
The Vallombrosans built her a cell next to the church of St Apollinarius, into which she was sealed, and which had a small window looking onto the church through which she could see and receive the Sacrament (qua videre posset et recipere sacrosanctae Matris Ecclesiae Sacramenta ), and another looking onto the street, through which she could receive food and give counsel. She lived there for twenty-eight years. One day a ferret came to join her, keeping her company. Her husband, hearing that she had become Vallombrosan, himself became a monk of that order, then died.
Umiltą's little cell attracted a great company, other young women wishing to imitate her, such that the cells multiplied like those in a beehive and the prayers and psalms could be heard in unity ascending into heaven. But the Abbot of Vallombrosa now decided that women could join the Order, and that Umiltą should be their Abbess. Umiltą's pet ferret fled at the news. Umiltą cried at being unsealed from her cell, but obeyed her Abbot, following twelve years of self-imposed imprisonment stepping out again into the world. In 1266 she was made Abbess of the first Vallombrosan convent for nuns. She was stern with both nuns and priests, insisting that they confess their faults before their deaths or before celebrating Mass, for the sake of their souls. One day the cellarer was given a fish to prepare and, thinking it was only enough for the Abbess, served it to her in a delicious sauce. Umiltą flung it into the midst of the refectory floor. The cellarer retrieved it and found it was miraculously large enough to serve all the Sisters.
Fifteen years later, in 1281, Faenza was torn apart by the strife between Guelf and Ghibelline and Umiltą's convent was sacked, though she and her Sisters were respected by the soldiers, because of her sanctity. It was time to leave. At first it was planned to move to Venice. But Umiltą was inspired by St John the Evangelist instead to go to Florence , even though in 1258 the Guelfs there had decapitated the Abbot Tesoro of Vallombrosa. She chose to go to make peace between the warring factions. She arrived in the midst of the Peace of the Cardinal Latino, when Guelf and Ghibelline kissed and made up for their bitter bloodshed. In that year Dante Alighieri was seventeen and writing his early sonnets.
Umilta` comes to Florence
Umiltą building her convent, Florence
Umiltą herself gathered the stones, loading them
onto a donkey, to begin building her monastery dedicated to St
John the Evangelist in Florence. One day, while she was doing
so, a nurse brought to her the dead child who was her charge.
Umiltą took the boy into a nearby shrine and laid the cadaver
at the feet of the image of St John the Evangelist, then with
a candle made the sign of the cross over the child, who
miraculously opened his eyes. The convent was founded in 1282.
Umiltą wanted that convent to be simple and poor. The
Florentine authorities decided otherwise and it was
constructed according to the design of Giovanni, son of
Niccolo Pisano, and consecrated in 1297, amidst the building
of Santa Croce, begun, 1295, Santa Maria del Fiore, begun
1296, and the Palazzo della Signoria, begun 1298.
Umiltą resurrecting the dead child
Umiltą became extremely ill with a fever one August and implored her Sisters for ice, telling them to go to the well to fetch it. They found the dry well full of ice. Their obedience had taught them charity. The well today is in the Fortezza da Basso. Another time, when she was too tired to go further on foot in the Appenines a horseman took her up onto his gentle horse, comforting her almost more by his heavenly words. Another time she and her Sisters on such a journey found they could not eat the brown bread given them, when suddenly there appeared the whitest of bread for them to eat. Two women hermits had almost decided to give up their solitude, when they dreamed of Umiltą, who then visited them in reality, and whom they recognised. A knight living near Santa Felicita` in Florence was troubled about his worldly affairs and sought advice from Umiltą. Who told him that that Thursday was to be the last day of his life. Which it turned out to be.
Her Sermons are magnificent. In Sermon II
she says it is the divine word which speaks, not coming from
her, but from the Father and the highest God, who gives to
each as much as he desires. Secretly he has taught her with
questions and answers, speaking within her, but now she speaks
to us with external words. The Spirit himself had taught her
in silence. And she now pronounces aloud to us his divine
words which she had heard. Beware therefore that you do not
receive this emptily, what her tongue is moved to say, for it
is moved by the Spirit. She says in Sermon III that she
marvels and fears about these things which rise up within her,
which she dares to write and say; for they are not in any
book, nor taught to her by any human science; only the Spirit
of God speaks within her, opening her mouth with these words
which she must say.
Umilta` dictating her sermons to two of her nuns
And in another Sermon she says, ' I go to the Lord, and he orders me to do this work, and then the Spirit of Jesus teaches me. And then and always the King of Creation is with me, who would not wish me to speak in ignorance, but I understand what I see, being fully instructed in what I think.' In Sermon VIII, she declares 'While you, my teacher, are King, most sweet and kind, you speak to me, exhilerating me, and I speak, burning with desire through being loved by Christ. You teach me to speak and to know the truth. With me you are near and make me, your unworthy slave, speak and open my mouth with these words, which are not my own '. She also composed Laude to the Virgin which her nuns at San Salvi continued to sing for centuries and which are noted to be full of mysteries ' sunt enim plenae mysteriis'.
In her cell she kept an image of the Child Jesus in swaddling bands, and used it to contemplate upon the Incarnation and Birth of Christ. The image is still preserved by the Vallombrosan Sisters in Bagno a Ripoli. She also spoke of her two guardian angels, one called Sapiel, the wisdom of God (whose name, she tells us, filled her heart suddenly with great joy), the other Emmanuel, God in us. Like Julian, she speaks of a universe in her heart, 'Habeo immensam gloriam in corde meo, certificata de nobilitate et magnitudine Angelorum moerum: Cum autem cogito de eorum pulchritudine, sentio me abite in ecstasim, ac veluti extra me rapi prae excessu gaudii'. She also says, in her II Sermon, 'O Emmanuel, O Sapiel, qui estis Angeli mei custodes, oro vos, dulcissimi ut ex omnibus viribus vestris praestetis mihi auxilium tam efficax, ut cum deduxeritis me ad praesentiam magnae Reginae, possim contemplare et fui matre cum dilecto filio suo, et de sinu materno inter brachia mea accipere gloriosum istum infantulum '. In Sermon IV, she says 'Suprema Deitas venit ab imperiali caelo in terram, et humiliter intravit vasculum unius puellae . . . .'
In 1300, the year of the Jubilee ,
Umiltą was seventy-four years old, and weakened by worry and
penance. 13 December, 1309, St Lucy's Day, she had a stroke
losing her speech and mobility. Yet her monastery experienced
miracles, such as bread and money miraculously multiplying
though it was a time of great famine. Umiltą had desired to
die on a Friday. And so she did, on three o'clock, on Friday,
22 May, 1310. All Florence was moved at the news and came
flocking. The Bishop of Florence presided at the funeral on
Sunday, 24 May.
Umiltą's Funeral, Florence
She was buried in a tomb at the right of the altar dedicated to St John the Evangelist. A Vallombrosan monk was healed of a crippled arm that had prevented him from celebrating Mass. A woman who for five years had been tormented with an illness that prevented her from speaking or swallowing was healed. Another woman with a stomach tumor was likewise healed. The tomb was observed to be covered with oil, and though it was cleaned, continued that way, the monks raising the slab and finding the body of the saint incorrupt. This was checked again, 11 June, 1311, by Antonio degli Orsi, Bishop of Florence (whose own tomb, by Tino da Camaino, is in the Duomo) and other witnesses.
Between 1313 and 1348, Pietro Lorenzetti painted these scenes of the life of the saint, showing her at its centre in her habit and veil, all of which is surmounted by the ' vile' sheepskin cap she was known to wear in her lifetime, and where she is shown holding forth her book and her flail, Orcagna similarly sculpting her so. Lorenzetti's polyptych is now in the Uffizi. Orcagna's statue is now in the baptistry of the church of San Michele at San Salvi. Santa Umiltą's body now rests at Bagno a Ripoli. 1 March, 1721, she was declared 'Beata Umiltą', 4 March 1948, Saint Humility.
In 1534, the Medicis had had the convent move to San
Salvi, near the Campo di Marte. Later still, in 1815, the
authorities suppressed that convent, the Sisters taking refuge
finally, in 1972, with the body of their Saint in Bagno a
shows leaves of Pontifical [Ordo] from St Umilta's Convent of St.-John the Evangelist in Florence (Vallombrosan Use) In Latin, illuminated manuscript on parchment, Italy, Florence, dated 1518, which they have for sale
and their accompanying essay gives further bibliography.
Acta Sanctorum. May V, 22 May, 203-222.
Breve Racconta della Vita Miracoli e Culto di Sant'Umilta Fondatrice della Monache Vallombrosane. Scritto da un Religioso del Medesimo Ordine. Firenze: 1722.
Davidsohn, Robert. Storia di Firenze.
Montgomery, Carmichael. 'An Altarpiece of Saint Humility'. The Ecclesiastical Review, 1913.
Salvestrini, Don Otello. Santa Umiltą: Sposa, Madre, Eremita, Monaca. Firenze: Il Consiglio Pastorale della Comunitą parrocchiale di S. Michele a S. Salvi, 1981.
Simonetti, Adele. I Sermoni di Umilta da Faenza. Spoleto: Centro Italiano di Studi sull'Alto Medioevo; Firenze: Societa Internazionale per lo Studio del Medioevo Latino, 1995.
The panels missing from the Uffizi that are in Gemäldegalerie, Berlin:
Umilta heals a sick nun
The miracle of the ice
Umilta: Sguardo sulla Santa Umiltą: Contemplating on Holy
Humility. Julia Bolton Holloway. Trans. Fabrizio
Vanni. Florence: Editoriale gli Arcipressi, 2004. Colour
Plates of Pietro Lorenzetti's Altarpiece Panels. Pp. 32.
JULIAN OF NORWICH, HER SHOWING OF LOVE
AND ITS CONTEXTS ©1997-2024 JULIA
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