Bernard of Siena

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Bernard of Siena


Franciscan preacher

Noble Birth.

Bernard of Siena was born, not in the town of Siena but in the seaport of Massa Maritima, where his father, a Sienese noble, was living at the time. He was orphaned at an early age and decided on a religious life after spending time caring for the sick and dying during an outbreak of the plague in 1400. He joined the Franciscan order in 1402, becoming a member of a strict Observant monastery in the order. At the time the Observant movement within the Franciscans championed an austere and disciplined interpretation of the rules of the order, emulating St. Francis' initial asceticism and poverty. Bernard soon developed skill as a preacher and began to conduct missions in and around his convent, which was near Siena, and in other cities throughout northern Italy. His fame as a preacher spread far and wide through a hugely successful mission he undertook during 1417. Transcripts of some of Bernard's surviving sermons illustrate his colorful style. He ranged over a broad variety of topics, including sexuality, heresy, domestic life, and clothing. He spiced these sermons with a common touch, including the use of bawdy sexual humor. The paintings that survive of his missions show that his audience was largely women, and those who heard him recorded that he often grew exasperated when his listeners grew restless.

Bonfires of the Vanities.

Bernard of Siena's preaching missions made skillful use of religious ritual as well. He designed an emblem that included a seal made from the letters "YHS," which stood for the Holy Name of Jesus. After whipping his audience into a frenzy of enthusiasm through his skillful rhetoric, he often concluded his sermons by holding up the emblem to the roars and cheers of the crowd. Like Catherine of Siena and other figures revered for their pious lives, he also engaged in peacemaking, mediating disputes in the Italian cities and encouraging combatants to adopt the YHS seal to replace their factional banners. His heavy reliance on the "Holy Name of Jesus" worried some clerical officials at the time because they feared that it led his audiences into idolatry. While Bernard was known for his peace-keeping skills among Christians, he was not so sanguine with those that stood outside the church's fold. His sermons frequently attacked the Jews for their money lending and pawn brokering, and prostitutes were also a frequent target as well. On the positive side, he did help to inspire movements that redeemed women out of prostitution by providing them with dowries so that they might marry. Later fifteenth-century preachers imitated his preaching missions, and elements of his style can be found in the sermons of St. John of Capistrano and the fiery rebel Girolamo Savonarola. These missions sometimes included dramatic public exorcisms, and they stirred weeping and intense displays of emotion from the audience. They usually concluded with a huge "bonfire of the vanities," into which men threw their cards, dice, and gaming boards, while women cast off their lace, ruffles, and other finery. Given this level of emotion, prostitutes and Jews often temporarily left town when word of Bernard's impending visit spread.


Bernard was already revered by many during his life for the saintliness of his behavior. He died during a preaching mission, and his cult quickly developed following his death. Reports of miracles associated with these relics were frequently broadcast in the years immediately after his death, and his canonization—that is his rise to an official saint of the church—had already occurredby 1450. In this role, his memory continued to live on since he was frequently a subject for religious altarpieces. His fiery sermons, which often forged a link between vain display and contemporary styles in clothing, also long outlasted his death.


C. L. Polecritti, "Bernardino of Siena," in Encyclopedia of the Renaissance (New York: Scribner 1999).

I. Origo, The World of San Bernardino (New York: Phaidon, 1962).

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Bernard of Siena

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