Saints Felicity and Perpetua || Saints Agnes and Cecilia || St Helena|| St Paula|| Christina of Markyate || Blessed Marie d'Oignies || St Umilta of Faenza || Blessed Angela of Foligno || Saints Birgitta and Catherine of Sweden || Blessed Chiara Gambacorta of Pisa || Santa Francesca Romana || St Rita of Cascia


anta Francesca Romana, St Frances of Rome, founded a monastery of oblates called the Tower of Mirrors. She had been married with children. I take her monastery's name as the title of this essay because saints mirror Christ and women are called to mirror both Christ and such saints. Yet the normal expectation is that saints are abnormal, totally virginal, unassailable ivory towers, not mirrors of ourselves. On the Internet I am often asked this question, 'There can't be many married woman saints, surely', including by editors of The Tablet , when they ask me to write on St Birgitta of Sweden. Yet, as a medievalist, I find them everywhere. I find the French feminists are right in saying women write with milk - and blood - , more than with ink. Perhaps married women saints went out of style when plaster cast statues of saints came into style.

Women, living in the vernacular world of the body, of child-bearing, of the family, could enter into that of the supposedly celibate Latin language of the Church. Women and their child-bearing bodies could audaciously, through their undeniable courage, charity and deepest Christianity, storm the gates and arenas of classic Latin, and came to be inscribed and canonized therein with the greatest honour.

One can gain sainthood as a woman as a martyr, as virgin, as matron, as widow.

See also /francesca, /traumahealing, the second of which gives episodes from her nursing care for her ill husband

Felicity and Perpetua (+203)

n the traditional canon of the Mass, a cloud of witnesses are named who benefited the Church. These include 'Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia'. These were either married, some with children, or were martyred because they rejected non-Christian suitors; two, Agnes and Lucy, being punished by being placed in brothels. In that canon, Felicity is named first because she died first, and she was Perpetua's slave, both being young mothers, the milk from their breasts mixing with their blood in the arena in Carthage from being savaged by beasts and gladiators. Perpetua herself writes the account of her visions in prison, the account being prefaced and completed by another at their deaths in A.D. 203. Whoever the scribe, he is careful to cite Peter quoting Joel in Acts,

Perpetua, then, writing in her own person, speaks of her anguish and illness being separated from her nursing baby, he being restored to her in prison, her health returns with his, and the prison becomes to her as a palace. In her vision of the golden ladder and of a man with white hair, she sees God as shepherd milking sheep who gives her sweet cheese to eat. She dreams of her brother dead from facial gangrene, praying for him, the second dream his facial scar gone, drinking water from a golden bowl and playing as a child. She dreams of the ampitheatre and of herself changed into a man and winning the golden apples. Felicity, next, gives birth to her daughter in prison. At this point the governor of the prison himself converts to Christianity. Taken naked in nets into the arena, the one a young mother, the other fresh from childbirth with milk flowing from her breasts, the audience objects, and Perpetua and Felicity are then dressed in tunics without girdles, Perpetua next guiding her executor's sword to her neck.

Perpetua and Felicity are matron martyrs.


Agnes (+304) and Cecilia (+223-230?)

oman Basilicas present fine early mosaics of Agnes and Cecilia. Agnes is said to have been martyred in A.D. 304, as a young child of twelve, which is borne out by her remains. We do not know Cecilia's dates, only her story, though this associates her with Pope Urban I (223-230). We have her body, brought back from the Catacombs to her house, which she gave at her death to the Church and which became Santa Cecilia in Trastevere.

Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Rome

Agnes and Cecilia are virgin martyrs.

See also /cecilia


Helena (+c. 330)

he Empress Helena, like Felicity, was a slave, likely a Briton from York where she bore the child Constantine to the Emperor Constantius in A.D. 274. In old age she came to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, building the Basilica that still stands over the cave of the Nativity, at Calvary excavating the Cross, and walking amongst the ordinary people, giving her wealth to the poor. The Byzantine iconography of the Virgin and Child, both dressed in imperial togas, is doubly also that of the Empress Helena and her son who Christianized the entire Roman Empire in A.D. 312, the Emperor Constantine. St Helen in turn became the model for many other women: the nun Egeria who travelled on pilgrimage from Spain to Sinai, Bethlehem and Jerusalem; St Monica, who died in Ostia in A.D. 387, the mother of St Augustine, and who came from Saints Felicity and Perpetua's Carthage, who did all in her power and beyond to convert her son to the Christian faith; and Saints Paula and Eustochium, the widowed mother and her virgin daughter, who came to Bethlehem, following pilgrimages like those of Helena and Egeria.

See also /egeria


Paula (+404 )

aula and Eustochium, coming from great wealth and nobility, supported Saint Jerome not only financially but also intellectually, living in poverty and labouring with him at the study of Hebrew, already having Greek and Latin, and translating the Vulgate Bible of Western Christianity. One can see today the cave where they lived and worked translating the Word from Hebrew and Greek into Latin, connecting to that where the Word made flesh was born to the Virgin Mother. Paula died in A.D. 404, Eustochium in A.D. 419. Both Paula herself, and then Jerome at her death, wrote letters which describe her strongly maternal and contemplative vision of the birth of the Christ Child to the Virgin Mother in the cave in Bethlehem. St Paula, in turn, did everything in her power to give birth to the Word of the Bible in the adjacent cave, giving to that project all her time, all her wealth, all her learning, all her love.

These women are matron and widow saints, while Eustochium is virgin. 

Thus we can see three generations of women shaping a fourth. The first generation, the women of the pages of the Bible itself: in the Hebrew Scriptures being prophets, judges, queens; in the Greek Testament, Mary, Mary Magdalen and the other women who followed Christ, then the widows who held the churches in their homes throughout the Mediterranean to whom Paul journeys and about whom he and Luke write. The second generation are the great women martyrs during the time when Christianity was under persecution, named in the Canon of the Mass, about whom legends come to be told. The third generation are those of the now Christian Roman Empire, converting their sons and confirming that Christianizing with the study of the geography and history of the Bible, archeologically and editorially preserving the past for the future. Bede tells of Anglo-Saxon queens converting their regal husbands, continuing the model of Helena and Constantine. Later will come Queen Margaret of Scotland (1045-1093), mother of six sons and two daughters, and Queen Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-1231), mother of three children. These women, like Christ, are our pioneers, and we shall find them echoed and mirrored by medieval women saints and sinners. I found their records because the women of the Middle Ages did not forget them, though men later have tried to have their names be as if written on the sand of arenas. Just try reading a page or two of Donald Attwater's Penguin Dictionary of Saints! Mary herself combines being virgin, mother, widow.

Because, in this part of the lecture, we are truly in the Middle Ages, it could help to explain the Church's teaching concerning marriage. Which we shall find as surprisingly liberal. Canon Law based itself on Christ's teachings on the Sacrament of Marriage and on the Paul's Epistles that husbands and wives must pay to each other the marriage debt, contracted to each other through their marriage Vows. If a husband did not satisfy his wife sexually it was his fault and his sin if she committed adultery, and vice versa it was the wife's fault if the husband so transgressed. For these reasons wives and husbands had to gain consent from each other if either or both then chose to be celibate, for instance in going on a pilgrimage or in entering a monastery, marriage Vows having clear precedence over monastic Vows./Elizabeth Makowski, 'Conjugal Debt and Medieval Canon Law, Equally in God's Image: Women in the Middle Ages , ed. Joan Bechtold, Julia Bolton Holloway, Constance S. Wright (New York: Peter Lang, 1990) pp. 129-143./ But we shall find in this lecture women who did not so consent, among them Cecilia of Trastevere, Etheldreda of Mercia, Christina of Markyate, Catherine of Sweden, wives who remained virgin, converting their husbands to their will.

See also /egeria, /jerome

Christina of Markyate (+1156)

See the St Albans Psalter on the Web, which Christina owned: http://www.abdn.ac.uk/stalbanspsalter/index.shtml.

hristina of Markyate in twelfth-century England read to her husband the story of St Cecilia, then jumped out of the window, fleeing from her marriage's consummation, becoming first an anchoress at St Albans, then founding a monastery. Two important documents tells us her story. One is the St Albans Psalter, now at Hildesheim. The other is her vita, edited by Charles Talbot in a fine parallel text edition, in both Latin and in English./Michael Camille, 'Philological Iconoclasm: Edition and Image in the Vie de Saint Alexis', Medievalism and the Modernist Temper, ed. R. Howard Bloch and Stephen G. Nichols (Batlimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), pp. 371-401; Christopher J. Holdsworth, 'Christina of Markyate,' Medieval Women , ed. Derek Baker (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1978), pp. 185-204; The Life of Christina of Markyate: A Twelfth Century Recluse, ed. and trrans., C.H. Talbot (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997)./ In these pages we meet a historical woman of flesh and blood who imaged herself into the contemplative books of Benedictines, entering their cloisters, their anchorholds, despite being married to her husband, despite her bishop's prohibition, despite her bishop's sexual attack upon her person. Her self-justification, she had vowed virginity as a child and did not consent to marriage. This brings us to a further element in these tales, that of the disobedience to hierarchy, a disobedience that is hallowed, encoded and canonized in these vitae . St Cecilia had defied the Roman authorities, refusing to perform sacrifices to Caesar. St Benedict's sister, St Scholastica, had prayed to God that Benedict break his Rule and remain overnight with her in holy conversation in Subiaco, like that between St Monica and St Augustine in Ostia, and God had then sent a terrific thunderstorm out of a clear blue sky, siding with Scholastica, not Benedict. Benedict and Scholastica shared the same womb as twins and were buried side by side, this Office of this tale, from St Gregory's Dialogues, sung by both monks and nuns on their shared feastday. Christina's sanctity, likewise, is seen in her outrageous defiance of worldly authority, even in the form of her husband, even in the form of her bishop, in her single-minded pursuit of the Benedictine life of the cloister. She has canon law on her side.

Indeed, it is emphatically the story of St Cecilia that Christina reads to her husband in their bedroom, on the first of three attempts he makes, and prior to her jumping out the window and running away from him to become a recluse.

Similarly, we have in Julian of Norwich evidence of another Englishwoman hearing and reading the legend of the Roman noblewoman. Julian's use of the image of Saint Cecilia's martyrdom with three sword wounds, emphatically engrossed and underlined in the Amherst Manuscript by its scribe, perhaps alludes to the Norwich Benedictine, Adam Easton, buried, 1397/98, in a Cardinal's tomb by that of St Cecilia in Santa Cecilia in Trastevere in Rome, and who may have been from whom she had heard the legend, The Norwich Castle Manuscript, which may be Julian's, at folio 26v gives, St Cecilia was used, too, by Lollards to justify women's preaching, John Wyclif noting that St Cecilia's Church was her own house,/Margaret Aston, Lollards and Reformers: Images and Literacy in Late Medieval Religion, p. 65./ Geoffrey Chaucer gave her legend to the Second Nun in the Canterbury Tales to tell.

These women and their texts exemplify 'Holy Disobedience', as paradoxically a Christian virtue. Theirs, like Antigone's, is a 'Higher Obedience', reminding us of the Nuremberg Principle, and the teaching of 'Just War', that it can be one's moral duty to disobey an immoral command.

When I cast my eye back over the women of the Middle Ages, those whom I find to write the most deeply are Angela of Foligno, Mechtild of Magdebourg, Umilta` of Faenza, Birgitta of Sweden, Catherine of Siena and Julian of Norwich. Half of these are married women, most of whom have undergone childbirth.


Marie d'Oignes (1177-1213)

arie, in the Diocese of Liege, was married at fourteen, and persuaded her husband to a vow of chastity and to work with her at a leper colony at Willambrouk. Later she moved to a community for lay people at Oignes and around her that community greatly expanded. Jacques de Vitry, her biographer, had actually left the University of Paris to study her instead, later becoming Cardinal, and he spoke of her as his mater spiritualis. A Supplement to that Vita was written by Thomas of Cantimpre. Just as Marie's community of beguines expanded so did books written by men about her.

Marie d'Oignes did not herself leave writings, her life being presented in the vita written by the influential Cardinal. In this vita Jacques de Vitry specifically states that Marie's vision of the Nativity is in the form which St Paula reported seeing in the cave in Bethlehem to Jerome, and the Cardinal goes on to say that Marie identifies herself with Mary and the Child suckling as if her own baby. This was to leave an important legacy to the later medieval Church. St Birgitta of Sweden's Magister Mathias quoted Jacques to Vitry on Marie d'Oignes often and clearly used this paradigm for himself in relation to Birgitta, in his encouraging her in her writing of theology especially Revelationes I and V. Likewise Margery Kempe's scribe read the work as well as indexing Birgitta's Revelationes and likewise modeled his relation to Margery's Book upon that of the Cardinal to Marie d'Oignes and of Magister Mathias of Linkoping and the Bishop Hermit Alfonso of Jaen and of the Cardinal Adam Easton of Norwich to St Birgitta of Sweden and her Revelationes. Perhaps even Julian of Norwich's Showing of Love with its Westminster Cathedral Manuscript opening of the Nativity become Annunciation is part of this patterning, this encouragement, where women could see mirrored in themselves the truth and wisdom in Mary's heart, in Mary's womb, rewriting the Logos as obstetrical, gynecological theology.

See also /marieoignes


Angela of Foligno (+1309)

 fragment of Angela's powerful text is found in a Bodleian manuscript at Oxford with a fragment from Marguerite Porete's Mirror of Simple Souls. Her writings were still being read and copied by English Benedictine nuns in exile in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, by nuns who were also reading and copying out Julian of Norwich. I sense that Angela influences Julian. Too many verbal and conceptual echoes for mere coincidence.

She married young, had several sons, then, around 1288, all in her immediate household, husband, sons and mother, died. She was worldly, wealthy, vain, beautiful, even unfaithful to her husband, according to legend. She found herself unable to confess some of her sins, and, receiving communion, thus added sacrilege to these. Praying to St Francis that she find a confessor, she came upon her relative, the Franciscan, Brother Arnaldo. He would become her confessor, spiritual director, amanuensis. In modelling her life on St Francis she found herself before a crucifix, stripping herself of her clothing, vowing poverty and chastity. In 1291 she asked the Privilege of Poverty from the apostle Peter in Rome and sold the remainder of her possessions, giving the proceeds to the poor. She became a Franciscan tertiary and journeyed to Assisi, receiving first a vision of the Trinity in a chapel dedicated to the Trinity, then another in the Basilica of Assisi, from seeing stained glass of St Francis in Christ's bosom. Like Margery Kempe she started screaming and crying when this vision left and left her desolate. Brother Arnaldo was furious.

He thought she was inspired by the devil. He made her explain herself to him. A flood of visions. He struggled to write these down, in Italian, in Latin. She speaks of Christ as the God-man, stressing the paradox of Divinity and Humanity. Brother Arnaldo describes the stages of her spiritual journey, sometimes of God's presence and joy, sometimes of the deepest desolation and temptations of the devil. This 'Memorial' is the first part of Angela's Book. Its second part are the Instructions she gives to her community of tertiaries gathered about her, especially advice to priests.

One among many of her visions shares in Mary's at the Presentation in the Temple, of February 2, with her Babe in her arms.

Tremendous dissension arose within the Franciscan Order and about it, the Spirituals who were persecuted as heretics preserving Francis' charism of poverty, the Conventuals discarding it. Angela of Foligno converted Ubertino da Casale to the Spirituals. Her own Book of Blessed Angela of Foligno is prefaced by approbation by a Cardinal, later disgraced by the Pope, and numerous Franciscans. It was, however, like Marguerite Porete's Mirror of Simple Souls, seen as dangerous.

See also /angela,
Angela da Foligno, Liber Lele

Umilta` of Faenza (1310)

e know very 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 in the thirteenth century.

Rosanesa Negusanti was born in Faenza to noble parents named Elimonte and Richilda in 1226. At fifteen she was married to Ugolotto Caccianemici, bearing him two sons who both died following their baptisms. In her XI Sermon she says, 'Ego partitorum duo cum dolore portavi'. 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,

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,

She did not ask 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 Lamone, had remained dry.

Umiltą leaves her convent

She came to the island of St Martin where the Clarissan Sister Philippa, a wise and severe woman, opened the door to her and gave her shelter for the night. 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

The city spoke of her as a saint.

A Vallombrosan monk of Saint Apollinare 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. 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,

and another looking onto the street, through which she could receive food and give counsel. 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. We are reminded of the growth of Christina's Priory at Markyate. The Abbot of Vallombrosa decided that women could now 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.

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 Felicitą 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.

And in another Sermon she says,

In Sermon VIII, she declares 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, 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, She also addresses, in her II Sermon, In Sermon IV, she says 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 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 Ripoli, whom I have seen there. She lies beneath their altar in a glass coffin and she is tall and large, indeed stalwart enough to have built that now destroyed convent in Florence.

Orcagna, La Beata Umiltą

These women who died in almost the same year, Angela of Foligno and Umilta` of Faenza, are joined by a third, the unmarried Marguerite Porete, burned in 1310 in Paris for the writing of her book, especially for its inclusion of an obstetric image, comparing herself and her book to the Virgin and her not-yet-born child, an image Dante will give to Bernard in the Paradiso, and which Birgitta of Sweden and Julian of Norwich will also borrow. These forbidden, underground books by contemplative women will influence the Lynn housewife, mother and pilgrim Margery Kempe.

See also /umilta

Birgitta of Sweden (+1373/Agnes/Cecilia/Jubilee/Umilta/Syon/Markyate) and her daughter, Catherine of Sweden (+1381)

irgitta was born into a powerful family, her father being the King of Sweden's Lawman. She was married young, though wanting to remain virgin, having read the Speculum Virginum , and knowing the legend of St Cecilia. She came to bear her husband eight children, naming one of these, her youngest, Cecilia. She and her husband went on arduous pilgrimages, to Trondheim, to Compostela. On the return from Compostela her husband's health broke. At Arras while he lay ill she had a vision of St Dionysius, the Patron Saint of France, telling her to stop the Hundred Years' War between the Kings of France and England. She and her husband and their large family retired to the Cistercian monastery at Alvastra where she began to write her visionary books, its Preface written by Magister Mathias and Revelationes I by Birgitta being taken to the Kings of France and England and to the Pope, in exile in Avignon, by Bishop Hemming of Abo and Petrus Olavi, the Cistercian Prior of Alvastra. Magister Mathias was won over to support Birgitta of Sweden because he had read the accounts about Saints Paula and Jerome and about Marie d'Oignes and Cardinal Jacques de Vitry.

In the Jubilee year of 1350, her husband having died, Birgitta herself arrived in Rome, living in a Cardinal's house and writing her many books. Three of her eight children joined her there, Catherine, her beautiful married, but still virgin and then widowed daughter, her prodigal son Charles, who died in the midst of a love affair with the adulterous Queen Joanna of Naples, when the family was journeying on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and Birger, her good son. Catherine become Abbess of her Brigittine Order's Mother House at Vadstena, and Birger its Confessor General. (The symbol for St Catherine of Sweden is of her deer nestled at her side, wich fled from her husband during a forest hunt.) In Birgitta's final year of life she has a vision in the Holy Sepulchre of her son Charles' sins being forgiven him, with wonderfully comic flourishes where the devil has amnesia and cannot remember his sins, the sack is empty in which he has stored, the notebook on which he has written having only blank white pages. She also has a magnificent vision of the birth of the Christ Child to the Virgin Mother, modeled on that described by St Paula to St Jerome a thousand years earlier, and by Marie d'Oignies, a century and a half earlier. Birgitta's vision is filled with obstetric details that a mother would think about, not a celibate nun or monk or priest, such as the Virgin taking off her outer robe and her shoes, being just in her white shift, kneeling, the Child on the ground, Joseph ineffectually coming with a candle too late and it pales beside the brilliant light of the Child. Birgitta makes the Birth more natural and more sacred and what she described then deeply influenced western art. One such painting is by Turino Vanni in the Museo Nazionale di San Matteo, Pisa, another by Niccolo di Tommaso in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Johnson Collection, another frescoed on the west door of Santa Maria Novella.

Turino Vanni, Birgitta's Vision in Bethlehem . Commissioned by Chiara Gambacorta for San Domenico, now in Museo Nazionale di San Matteo, Pisa

Birgitta of Sweden is a matron widow saint, her daughter, Catherine of Sweden, a virgin matron saint.


Chiara Gambacorta (+1419/Catherine/Birgitta)

ora Gambacorta, who was to commission Turino Vanni's painting, was born in 1362 to Pietro Gambacorta, who soon thereafter became Pisa's ruler, and who journeyed with Birgitta of Sweden to Bethlehem and Jerusalem in 1373. She was married at 13, widowed at 15. She fled, entering a Franciscan convent and taking the name of Chiara. Her parents removed her from it and imprisoned her for several months. But Birgitta of Sweden and Catherine of Siena's spiritual director, Bishop Hermit Alfonso of Jaen, supported her in her resolve, giving her a manuscript copy of Birgitta's Revelationes, likely in 1378. Eventually, her father was won over, consenting to her profession and building a new convent for her in Pisa, which she dedicated to the male founder of the Order of Preachers, St Dominic. She was elected prioress in 1395, continuing so until her death in 1419.

She filled her convent with paintings of St Catherine of Alexandria and St Catherine of Siena, these concentrating on their mystic marriages to Christ, and of the married saint, Birgitta of Sweden, some of these paintings, the predella to the altarpiece, painted by Martino di Bartolomeo, and which are now in Berlin, showing Birgitta in the act of writing her Revelationes, which was edited by Bishop Alfonso of Jaen, and the above painting, by Turino Vanni, of Birgitta witnessing the birth of the Christ Child to the Virgin Mother in the cave in Bethlehem, a vision had in the presence of Pietro Gambacorta and Bishop Hermit Alfonso of Jaen, and which mirrors that had by St Paula in the presence of Cardinal St Jerome in that same cave, a thousand years earlier, and later shared by Marie d'Oignies, Cardinal Jacques de Vitry tells us.

I went seeking material about Beata Chiara Gambacorta in Pisa, with a young Swedish woman in quest of information about St Birgitta. Neither of us expected to meet Chiara herself. But we did. Her convent was badly bombed in World War II, the paintings placed in the Museum, and another convent opened for the surviving sisters and relics. Under the altar of this new convent was the tiny body of Chiara Gambacorta in a glass coffin like Sleeping Beauty, against the wall her tomb slab, both showing her as Dominican, the marble slab of her holding also St Catherine's lily. I was allowed to stand on a chair and open the doors of a reliquary holding the Crucifix miraculously presented to her by a nobleman who rescued it from a fire, hearing a voice telling him to bring it to Pisa where it was awaited. Meanwhile Chiara, in her cloister in prayer, in 1398, had heard a voice, 'Go to the Door. Your Spouse is coming'. Nuns may not open the outer door alone at night. She summoned her Sisters. They processed, with priests joining them, to the door. And there the nobleman, il Magnifico Galeazzo da Firenze, nephew of Barnabo Visconti, Duke of Milan, with many Pisans and the canons of the Cathedral, met them with the gift of this mysterious Crucifix. There, in the light of candles, kneeling they adored the Cross, singing 'O Crux ave spes unica'.

Chiara Gambacorta is accompanied in her story by Maria Mancini, both Beatified. Maria, then called Catherine, had married at 12, bearing two sons who died shortly after, her first husband dying after three years of marriage. She married a second time for eight years, having five daughters and a son, and making their house into a hospital for pilgrims and the sick, giving what they earned to the poor. When her husband and her son died she entered the convent with Suor Chiara. There she had a vision of St Thomas Aquinas, St Augustine and St Dominic, with his star, who showed her an open book in which was written 'You are the chosen Bride of Christ'. She also had visions of the Host in the Tabernacle, of the imprisonment and death of Pietro Gambacorta, and of St Birgitta of Sweden. Her bones and the tabernacle in question are likewise carefully preserved in the new convent, and I saw them there.

See also /birgitta


Francesca Romana (+1440/Umilta/Birgitta)

o my joy I found myself walking into these frescoes, both on the walls and around me in reality, for Francesca's Oblates still dress at Tor de' Specchi in black habits and white veils, and their large, medieval/Renaissance convent is unchanged, spotless and utterly beautiful. The frescoes, like Lorenzetti's polyptych of St Umiltą`, unfold the story of St Francesca's Life, Miracles and Visions, centred upon the love of God and neighbour.

On Christmas Day, 1432, Francesca in ecstasy was in vision at a Mass celebrated by St Peter in the presence of the Madonna, and was received by him as an Oblate. St Birgitta describes the Madonna's centrality amidst the Disciples at Pentecost, Francesca, in her visions, crowns her with the Holy Spirit's flames and here surrounds her with flaming Seraphim.

Amongst her many miracles of healing she gave speech to a deaf-mute girl, named Camilla Clarelli, by touching her tongue with her finger. Amongst her other miracles she healed men wounded in the constant skirmishes about Rome, healed children who were paralysed or raised from the dead children who had died in their sleep. This last miracle replicates that by St Umilta` .

During a serious famine in 1402, Francesca gave all her grain to the poor (see the last of it spill from her basket against her dark habit), then found it all miraculously restored and of the highest quality. A similar miracle happened with a barrel of wine that became empty, then full, when being distributed to the Roman poor. The convent of Tor de' Specchi still has the manger, made from a pagan sarcophagus, from which Francesca would give firewood to the poor. Similar miracles were reported of Santa Zita and Sant'Umilta `.

1 March 1433, Francesca in a vision is taken by the Mother of God under her cloth-of-gold mantle and her daughters in Christ are received as Oblates of Mary. Birgitta of Sweden has a similar vision.

Several time in ecstasy Francesca received the Holy Child from the Virgin. Sant'Umilta ` similarly worshipped the Holy Child.

28 June 1438 returning from St Paul's Basilica and visiting her vineyard she was caught up in ecstasy and knelt in a stream. But when she got up the Oblates noticed her clothes were perfectly dry. A similar miracle is told of Sant' Umilta `.

During an ectasy the Divine Redeemer takes Francesca by the right hand. This fresco, with Mary seated beside Christ, recalls illuminations to St Birgitta 's visions of sacred conversations with Mary and Christ in Heaven, given in her Revelationes.

While in meditation an angel brings Francesca's dead son, Evanglista, to her. Evanglista had died in the plague of 1411. Thereafter the angel stayed with Francesca as her visible companion. This angel accompanies Francesca in the frescoes of her torments by devils. Sant'Umilta` has two angels who accompany her.

Many times when Francesca was recieving Communion a shining orb appeared above her.

One day there was not enough bread for the Community and their Refectory was in great disrepair and poverty. Francesca took up the scraps, blessed them, and there were plenty to feed the fifteen who had remained as well as the bread basket being full. Again, this miracle replicates those of Santa Zita of Lucca and Sant' Umilta ` of Florence, and above all of Christ, recalling the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes and the Last Supper.

She died in her surviving son's home, surrounded by her Oblates, having said Vespers, 9 March 1440. The townspeople of Rome so loved her the body was quickly taken to the Olivetan church of Santa Maria Nuova in the Forum and entombed with the greatest honour.

Santa Francesca Romana's Tor de' Specchi is very strictly cloistered, only opened to the public on two days of the year. 'We are not a museum', they sternly and rightly said. But their work of charity continues, their cloister filled not only with themselves but the elderly poor and poor young students with whom they share their wealth. As Oblates they ask for no privileges from the Church, they pay all taxes, and hence are loved down the centuries, theirs the only convent not subject to attack by angry mobs. They continue Benedict's Rule of work, study, and above all, prayer. Their faces today have the same contemplative beauty that is seen in these frescoes.
See also /francesca, /traumahealing

St Rita of Cascia (+1457)

anta Rita 's dates are medieval, 1381-1457, but her canonization modern, 1900; hence we lack contemporary pictures of her. I earlier scorned plaster-cast statues of saints. Santa Rita of Cascia is the ultimate plaster-cast saint.

Her story. She was born near Spoleto. She wanted to be a nun but her family married her young to a man of most violent temper who abused her and their two children. Rita struggled to remain faithful to her husband and to God. After twenty years of hell her husband was stabbed by an enemy, but before dying he repented because of Rita's prayers for him. Soon afterwards, her two sons, brutalized by their father, also died. She sought to realize her childhood vocation but monastic orders do not lightly accept women who are of the married state. Finally she was admitted by Augustinian nuns at Cascia in Umbria. Her great devotion was to the Passion of Christ, suffering herself the wound of the thorn. She fasted, prayed, was greatly obedient and practised charity.

See also /rita


Camille, Michael. 'Philological Iconoclasm: Edition and Image in the Vie de Saint Alexis'. Medievalism and the Modernist Temper. Ed. R. Howard Bloch and Stephen G. Nichols. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. Pp. 371-401.

Holdsworth, Christopher J. 'Christina of Markyate.' Medieval Women. Ed. Derek Baker. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1978. Pp. 185-204.

Petroff, Elizabeth Alvilda. Medieval Women's Visionary Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

The Life of Christina of Markyate: A Twelfth Century Recluse. Ed. and trans. C.H. Talbot. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.

Umilta` da Faenza. I Sermoni: Studio e edizioni. Ed. Adele Simonetti. Spoleto: Centro Italiano di Studi sull'Alto Medioevo; Firenze: Societa` Internazionale per lo Studio del Medioevo Latino, 1995.

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