DANTE AND THE STIGMATA OF SAINT FRANCIS – A singular enigma, between history and prophecy –

Pittura di Dante
Messer Dante Alighieri

The traditional feast of the Great Holy Pardon of Assisi occurs every 2nd August, which is celebrated with particular devotion and considerable influx of faithful. The Holy Pardon in 2017 when I wrote this article fell on a Wednesday and in the morning, particularly crowded also because of the time of year. In a past exhortation, we touched upon the different reasons of life and faith, focusing in particular on Baptism, the sacrament of Christian initiation which is a call for every believer toward holiness. At the end of the exhortation, before the dismissal we gave an assignment “Now I will assign you the homework: go back to your homes, look for the date of your Baptism and put it somewhere where you will always be reminded of the date, many of us do not know what our baptismal date is.  In truth I myself had to look it up”. Assigning your homework like any good teacher to his pupils at the end of the lesson. And as you know, although its summer it is still a time for homework. This seems to me not only pleasant, but also of particular effect and I immediately thought of how to recycle the homily of the Vespertine Mass that I was preparing to celebrate in the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi on the evening of the same day on August 2.  Saint Francis of Assisi patron saint of Italy is the customary theme on that particular anniversary of the Great Holy Pardon of Assisi. In this regard, I remembered — as an elementary student I learned that the unparalleled Pauper’s panegyrist was and still remains the great poet Dante Alighieri: who praises him in section XI, of the Fourth Heaven — The Sun, where all of the learned minds reside. The admirable praise is placed on the lips of St. Thomas Aquinas, not a Franciscan, but a Dominican and therefore above all suspicions. In Aquinas’s  phenomenal speech, he enumerates the most significant events of the life of St. Francis and, alluding to the sacred stigmata, for his part, in the triplet 106-109, he expressed it as follows:

among the savage rocks, which ’tween the Tiber and the Arno rise,

he took from Christ himself the final seal,

which on his limbs he bore for two whole years.

La Maestà di Assisi- affresco di Cimabue, tra il 1285 e il 1288, basilica inferiore di San Francesco in Assisi. Particolare delle stimmate.
The Maestà of Assisi: fresco by Cimabue, between 1285 and 1288, lower basilica of San Francesco in Assisi. Details of the stigmata.

The poetic inspiration is immediately evident, but the text, at first reading, also raises some doubts. In fact, the event of the stigmata of St. Francis, from the Roman Martyrology is dated 17 September 1224, the death of the Saint then occurred on 4 October 1226, therefore he carried the signs of the Passion on his body for over two years, as is well indicated by Dante: “… which on his limbs he bore for two whole years”. Now, following this timeline, it would seem unlikely that between Jesus and St. Francis, in the last two years of St. Francis’s earthly life that there would not have been any other significant manifestations of devotion and piety. All the edifying literature which arose, for example, around the Fioretti “little Flowers” tradition, undeniably contests it. Why then does Dante  therefore, who had a razor-sharp mind and who dies in 1321 less than a century after our Seraphic Father, indicate the stigmata as the divine “last seal” on him? Why “last” if St. Francis lasted two more years in holiness of life and purity of faith? This is the question that, I proposed as “homework” for those attending this Mass on August 2, 2020 (if the COVID19 travel restrictions have been lifted) For more details go to https://www.porziuncola.org/. 

This question among my confreres and some parishioners had aroused an unimaginable chorus of interlocutors who for several days inundated my email in box and gave me absolutely no respite, also because the texts or manuals or comments available did not even mention the Gordian knot, thus further stimulating the curiosity of the good students/parishioners search. In truth, the answer, to be underpinned as historically accurate, requires some essential hypothesising. Dante wrote the Comedy around 1300 and addressed it mainly to his contemporaries and fellow citizens, whom, as we can appreciate, were able to understand what he was communicating immediately, because it was expressed in the vernacular of the times. So its text should be read in both its original poetic language (which can be fun) and in its popular and common text of today. The Florence of the time is composed of an extremely varied and hierarchically constituted society.

Stemma dell’Arte della Lana, in terracotta, Della Robbia, 1487- Agnellino con stendardo e aureola.
Coat of arms of the Arte della Lana, in terracotta, Della Robbia, 1487- Lamb with banner and halo.

The guilds of arts and crafts were extremely active and included 7 Major Guilds (of judges and notaries, of merchants, money changers or banking, of wool, of silk, doctors and apothecaries, and furriers) and 14 Minor Guilds (Beccai or butchers, Shoemakers, Blacksmiths, Stonemasons and carpenters, Tailors and combers of linen, Hosts and sellers of wine, Hoteliers, Pizzicàgnoli (sellers of salami and cheeses and spicy foods) sellers of oil, and the traders of leather and skins). Each of these multi-coloured, and established operational categories which had its own headquarters in Florence, a patron saint, and custody of a local church and finally a blazon or logo of recognition.

Each class was governed by a hierarchically composite authority, elected from the base and for a short duration to allow their control by the electorate and favour the rotation at the upper hierarchy. This was the socio-productive structure of the city and all the inhabitants were called to be part of it based on their profession and aptitudes. The well-known regulations of the Florentine politician and Noble Giano della Bella (1293) who forbade access to public offices, and therefore to political life, to those who were not registered. A provision that induced Dante to adhering to the Major Guild of doctors and apothecaries which also included the scholars, to then access the town’s political activity with the well-known and dramatic implications that followed. By far the most numerous and active of these guilds was the Arte Maggiore della Lana (the wool Guild), which proved decisive in the surprising development of Florence at the time. In 1250, with the arrival in the city of a religious Order (a mendicant fraternity suppressed by Pope Pius V by a bull on February 8, 1571), monks of the Humiliati who were particularly experienced in the processing and trade of wool, the city modernised its production and marketing technique, so much so that in 1308, considered to be a moment of paramount commercial splendor for the Florentine’s, reached the record production of one hundred thousand pieces of wool, while the corresponding operating shops were more than three hundred.

Convento francescano sul monte della Verna nel Casentino
Franciscan convent on Monte della Verna in the Casentino where in a cave S. Francesco in 1224, between 14 and 17 September he received the Sacred Stigmata.

The first known statute of the sector dates back to 1317; it indicates that the Governing Council of the activity was 48 members, chaired by 2 consuls whose names were drawn by lot every 4 years and were joined by a judge, a chancellor, a chamberlain and by some debt collectors of the taxes. Wool processing is also described in each of its particular processes. The raw material, precisely raw wool, was purchased mainly in the European squares or in north-western Africa, was then subjected to a manufacturing process divided into more than twenty successive steps before being placed on the market. The most significant interventions were carding and combing, spinning, weaving, finishing, dyeing. After each of these procedures, the batches of wool being processed were marked with a special mark which attested to their progressive processing, according to specific and strict control statutes. The pieces thus produced, at the end of all the treatments provided, were marked by the wording “Florence”, firmly sewn at the top with unalterable and indelible methods, as an absolute guarantee of high quality and certain authenticity. Marked by this brand, the woollen fabric could be legally traded on all the squares even outside of Italy. Without it, it had neither value nor market. This final mark was commonly known as the “last seal“, as a guarantee of maximum and definitive excellence of the artefact. The technique called “last seal” had thus entered the city’s common vernacular as a parlance which everyone understood and knew its meaning, understood not so much in a temporal sense, but as a final qualitative value, of great value, of universal value.

Florence center, Palazzo dell’Arte della Lana, overlooking the church of Orsamichele, between Piazza della Repubblica and Palazzo Vecchio, famous for its architecture and frescoes.

Dante, therefore, presenting to his fellow citizens the stigmata of St. Francis as his “last seal”, intended to indicate a degree of supreme spiritual perfection which the Saint of Assisi, after his previous and subsequent purifications, had already received two years prior to his death. This was the goal on the other side of the summit. St. Francis’ holiness was thus represented as an authentic masterpiece of divine art perfectly successful and ahead of its time, with universal value, to the whole world, just as the pieces of wool were which that bore their fateful final mark: their ‘last seal’. 

The great Florentine poet Dante seems to prove that he is also a good prophet: in fact, the figure, the work, the holiness, in a word, the maximum perfection of the evangelical life of St. Francis will be recognised and appreciated all over the world: this is confirmed by the statistics of many faiths, on a global level: St. Francis, marked by this “last seal” by the sacred stigmata, the first to have received them, proclaimed a saint by Pope Gregory IX in 1228, two years after his death, is known and revered all over the world as a forerunner of the evangelical faith, in first place within the devotional hierarchy of Saints and Assisi and his land “’tween the Tiber and the Arno …”, thanks to the charm that he has lavished on you and that remains, after Rome, the most famous Italian historical city in the world, most popular with many in the Vatican, as a retreat, especially in the last few years. The miracle of the last seal continues…