FIOR (Franciscan Institute Outreach - Malta)

4. Sources: life of St. Francis (2)

The Trilogy of Thomas of Celano

4.3. First of all, a short biographical note about friar Thomas, first biographer of St. Francis. Thomas was born around 1185 in the small town of Celano, in the Abruzzi region of central Italy. He entered the Order probably after Francis returned from Spain in 1213-1214, since in his First Life of St. Francis (1 Cel) he writes that "some educated and noble men" were received in the Order. Most probably Thomas was one of them. Friar Jordan of Giano, in his Chronicle, 19, says that Thomas was chosen among the brothers to take part in the Franciscan mission to Germany in 1221 under the leadership of Caesar of Speyer. In 1222 Thomas was appointed custos of Mainz, Worms, Köln and Speyer, and in 1223 as vicar provincial in Germany. Thomas probably returned to Italy in 1224. He was not personally present in the important events of the last two years of Francis' life (1224-1226), but he gives a very detailed and personal account of the canonisation ceremony which took place in Assisi on 16 July 1228, thus indicating that he was present for the occasion. On this occasion Pope Gregory IX commissioned him to write an official biography of St. Francis, the Vita Prima. Thomas was probably present in Assisi also on 25 May 1230, for the solemn translation of the relics of St. Francis to the new basilica. Thomas appears again on the scene in 1244, when during the General Chapter of Genoa, Crescentius of Jesi, Minister General, asked him to gather any material relevant to the life of Francis from those friars who still remembered the saint and who were still alive. The response from the brothers was encouraging, especially that from friars Leo, Rufino and Angelo, who wrote a letter from the hermitage of Greccio on 11 August 1246, accompanied by their memories or "florilegium". This material has been lost, and it certainly does not correspond to the Legend of the three companions (see below), but we can safely state that Thomas included it in the Vita Secunda which he wrote in 1246-1247. Again in 1250 the Minister General John of Parma asked Thomas to write a Treatise on the Miracles of St. Francis, which was ready in 1252-1253. This is the "trilogy" of Thomas of Celano, who is also the author of a "Legenda ad usum chori", a summary of 1 Cel. It is not certain whether Thomas is also the author of the Legend of St. Clare. Thomas spent his last years in Tagliacozzo, in the Marche region. He died in 1260 and is buried in the church of the ex-monastery of the Poor Clares of Tagliacozzo, the property of the Friars Minor Conventuals since 1506.

The apparition to Gregory IX

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4.4. The First Life of St. Francis was written in 1228, after the canonisation of St. Francis. Gregory IX meant it to be a literary monument to St. Francis, together with the architectural monument he raised in the "specialis ecclesia" built as a double church (burial crypt and monastic church) after the Pope issued the Bull "Recolentes" on 29 April 1228. 1 Cel received papal approval on 25 February 1229.

4.5. Cel starts with a prologue, in which Thomas mentions the command of Gregory IX who entrusted him with collecting the documentary evidence and the writing of the Life. The Life is divided into three parts. The first part follows the historical order, and presents material relevant to Francis' conversion, the founding of the Order and concludes with the event of the Greccio Christmas celebration in 1223. The second part deals with the last two years of Francis' life, particularly the stigmatisation, death and burial. The third part narrates the canonisation ceremony on 16 July 1228, and gives a list of miracles attributed to the intercession of the saint, which were read as part of the solemn celebration. 1 Cel ends with an epilogue. Thomas certainly consulted Francis' companions, his writings, and Pope Gregory IX himself. His style is highly erudite, and he follows the rigid pattern of the "ars dictaminis" and the Latin "cursus". He also made use of hagiographical sources, and particularly of the Vita Sancti Martini by Sulpicius Severus and the life of St. Benedict in the Dialogues of Gregory the Great.

Assisi Interior of the Upper Basilica

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4.6. The Vita Secunda is intimately related to the Letter sent from Greccio by friars Leo, Rufino and Angelo on 11 August 1246. These three companions of St. Francis obeyed the Minister General, Crescentius of Jesi, who asked the brothers to hand in their memories of St. Francis during the Chapter of Genoa of 1244. The letter states that the brothers did not wish to "recount these things in the form of a legend, since other legends have been written of his life and miracles...but rather to gather the most beautiful of the many flowers ("florilegium") in a pleasant field".

4.7. The problem lies in the question: what happened to this "florilegium"? Only the letter has been conserved, and it is often placed erroneously before the Legend of the three companions, following the manuscript tradition of the 13th and 14th centuries (see English Omnibus of Sources, pp. 887-888). Its correct place should be before 2 Cel, for the simple reason that this "lost" material is probably present in Celano's work, which was documented by the memories of Francis' first companions. This problem is related to a much more complicated problem regarding the documentary sources of many 14th century legends and compilations. The "Franciscan question" regarding the Sources is still open to discussion, even though scholars have gone a long way to solving many of its riddles since the time of Paul Sabatier (end of last century).

4.8. Cel was given a particular name by the author, "Remembrance in the Desire of a Soul" ("Memoriale in desiderio animae"). It is divided into two main parts. Part one is made up of 17 chapters, and depends upon historical documentation in the 1 Cel. The second part is much longer. It has 166 chapters, which do not consider Francis' life from the point of view of chronology, but seek to portray his "exempla" or virtues.

4.9. The Treatise on the Miracles of Blessed Francis was written by Thomas during the term of office of John of Parma, Minister General (1247-1257). Thomas wrote this work in 1252-1253 and presented it during the Chapter of Metz in 1254. The aim of 3 Cel is to fill the lacuna of the other two lives, according to mediaeval insistence upon the miraculous aspect of sanctity. 3 Cel begins with the miraculous beginning of the Order, and then passes on to the miracle of Francis' stigmata and their healing power. The Treatise recounts the various miracles accomplished through St. Francis' intercession. It has a total of 198 paragraphs.

4.10. One last interesting note. Thomas of Celano is considered to be the author of the famous liturgical sequence for the mass for the dead, "Dies Irae".

Major Life of St. Francis by St. Bonaventure

4.11. Giovanni Fidanza was born in Civita, Bagnoregio, in the Lazio region of Italy, in 1217. As a boy he was miraculously cured of an illness through the intercession of St. Francis (LegMaj Prologue, 3). He was sent to the university of Paris, where he studied under Alexander of Hales. This famous scholar became a friar minor and introduced a Franciscan chair in the university. Bonaventure also became a friar and continued his studies to become a "baccalaureus biblicus". He commented the Book of Sentences of Peter Lombard, and became a Master of the Franciscan School in the midst of a long and bitter dispute between the secular masters and the mendicants (Franciscans and Dominicans) in the university. On 2 February 1257 he was elected to succeed John of Parma as Minister General, during the Chapter of Aracoeli. One of his first preoccupations was to secure the stability and unity of the Order. For this reason he wrote an official biography of St. Francis, called "Legenda Maior S. Francisci", which was commissioned by the Chapter of Narbonne (1260) and presented to the Chapter of Pisa (1263). The Chapter of Paris (1266) ordered the destruction of all previous biographies of St. Francis, so as to secure the LegMaj as the only officially recognised biography of the saint. This order was catastrophic for the Celano trilogy. For many centuries the only official life of St. Francis in circulation was the LegMaj. The only copies of Celano's lives which scholars subsequently found, were in Cistercian and Benedictine monasteries, where the Chapter's decree could not affect them directly. Bonaventure also presented a summary of his LegMaj in the "Legenda Minor", for liturgical use during the octave of the feast of St. Francis. Bonaventure was nominated bishop cardinal of Albano in 1273, to pave the way for the Council of Lyons. He died during the Council proceedings, on 14 July 1274. Sixtus IV, a Franciscan, declared him a saint in 1482 and Sixtus V, another Franciscan, a doctor of the Church in 1588. He is known as the Seraphic Doctor.

Assisi Basilica of St. Francis

4.12. The LegMaj opens with a Prologue, in which Bonaventure presents Francis in a biblical perspective. His mission is that of Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist. Francis is the apocalyptic angel of the seal of the living God (Apoc 7,2) who marks the foreheads of th elect with the cross of salvation. This image was incidentally very dear to a number of friars who cherished the eschatological doctrine of the abbot Joachim of Fiore about the age of the Spirit, and who were causing a good deal of trouble in the Order. The Order was already experiencing the growing tension between the "Communitas Ordinis", or Friars of the Community and the Spirituals. Bonaventure appears to be a pacifier, and a good number of scholars have indicated that the LegMaj was a political tool in the hands of the Minister General in a very tense moment in the history of the Order.

4.13. The rest of the LegMaj is divided into fifteen chapters, each of which extols one or the other of Francis' virtues. (For a thorough analysis of the theology of the LegMaj, cfr. E. Cousins, "Bonaventure. The Soul's Journey into God. The Tree of Life. The Life of Saint Francis". Preface by I. Brady, Paulist Press, New York, 1978). As a historian Bonaventure did not add new material to what Celano had already documented. However, he holds the merit of preserving the documentary sources, especially Celano, and organising them into a legend which is structured upon the style of a mystical treatise. Bonaventure was a truly faithful son of Francis. He travelled far and wide in the Order, knew its problems quite well, and could respond generously to its real needs. The LegMaj is all this and more, and remains one of the classic biographies of Francis.

4.14. The LegMaj provided Giotto with the documentary background which inspired his 24 frescoes on the life of St. Francis on the walls of the upper basilica of St. Francis in Assisi.

© copyright FIOR-Malta
Text by Fr. Noel Muscat ofm


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