St. Bernardino Preaching

WAG 2758


St Bernardino or Bernardino degli Albizzeschi (1380-1444) to give him his full birth-name, was a Franciscan preacher. He was the key religious personality of fifteenth-century Siena. Sienese by birth, his preaching dominated the first half of the century and continued to have an impact after his death on the quarrelsome Sienese politics in the second half. Siena’s devotion to Bernardino was so great that he was made a saint in 1450, only six years after his death. Each of his series of outdoor sermons delivered in Italian in Siena could last up to four hours. At their peak his sermons were said to have reached crowds of 30,000 people. His audiences were carefully divided according to sex by a ‘modesty’ curtain to ensure there were no other distractions. He campaigned on moral issues, against gambling and praised affectionate marriage. Above all, in 1425 and 1427, he campaigned to bring peace to Siena’s faction-ridden elite and unite them in the name of Jesus. St Bernardino was deeply aware of the power of images. In 1418 designed a tablet with a monogram of the holy name of Jesus YHS set in a circle of flames. These were the first three letters of Jesus’s name in Greek and also the Latin initials (in 15th-century Italy) for ‘Jesus Saviour of Mankind’ (Iesus Hominem Salvator). The saint would lift the tablet theatrically at the end of his sermons often to the accompaniment of a musical fanfare. After his canonisation in 1450 almost every major institution in the city proclaimed allegiance to him by replacing political emblems on buildings with YHS. Images of the saint preaching were produced from his death onwards. His features were probably derived from his death-mask in the town where he died, L’Aquila in central Italy. This shows a toothless, hollow-cheeked man, who had lost all his teeth by the age of forty, with a down-turned mouth and a pointed chin. The Walker’s painting was created in about 1462-3 early in the career of Francesco di Giorgio when he was still in the workshop of his master, Lorenzo di Pietro, known as Vecchietta (1410-1480). Vecchietta, like Francesco, was also a versatile artist with a large workshop full of assistants producing paintings and sculptures. Unlike other portrayals of the saint preaching, which are usually set in Siena’s central square, the Campo, the Walker’s painting is thought to be set in an idealized piazza. In the same way the three women standing on the left (in the foreground) may represent Bernardino’s ideal types of womanhood, who formed the focus of several of his sermons: a young unmarried girl, her head uncovered; a wife, dressed in rich bridal clothes; and a widow in black. Marriage was the only time when Siena’s laws against excessive spending would have allowed a woman to wear such a rich bridal costume, trimmed with ermine tails and jewellery, in public. It has been suggested that the Walker’s painting was commissioned from Vecchietta’s studio as part of a larger altarpiece in the Sienese church of San Francesco. But this link is not proven and the church was destroyed by fire in 1655. The piazza outside the church was where Saint Bernadino preached his first sermons in 1425, before the crowds grew too large for the square and he had to move to the Campo. The church also housed the tombs of Sienese nobility, including the Piccolomini family from whom Vecchietta’s most important patron, Pope Pius II, descended. The emblem of two birds visible on the trumpet banner in the Walker’s painting might help identify the family who commissioned the painting. But so far no Sienese family has been identified with coat of arms or heraldry of that design and so it is possible that it was painted for a church in another town.