Saint Bernardine of Siena: The Apostle of Italy

Saint Bernardine of Siena: The Apostle of Italy

On May 20, the Church celebrates the feast of Saint Bernardino (Bernardine) of Siena (1380-1444), a Franciscan friar and celebrated preacher called "The Apostle of Italy.”

Preparation for career in public life

Bernardino was born on September 8, 1380, in the Tuscan town of Massa Marittima, where his father, a member of the noble Albizzeschi family of Siena, was governor. Orphaned by age 6, he was raised by a devout aunt. As a youth he received an excellent education in liberal arts and law to prepare him for a career in public life.

Serving at a hospital during a plague

In 1397, while still a student, he joined the lay confraternity attached to the largest hospital in Siena. When, in 1400, a severe plague descended upon the city, Bernardine, with some companions, took charge of the hospital for several months. He then cared for his aunt in her last illness.

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Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala, Siena, where Bernardine served as a young layman

Joining Franciscans for more contemplative life

Shortly after, Bernardine joined the Franciscans of the new Observant reform in 1403. During his early years in the Order, he led a more contemplative life in the friary of Fiesole, reading widely in Scripture and earlier Franciscan thinkers.

A ministry of popular preaching

By the middle of the next decade, however, he turned more and more to popular preaching. He devoted himself to this ministry for thirty years, traveling through the cities and towns of northern and central Italy.

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The great town square, "campo," in Siena, scene of many sermons preached by Bernardine

Addressing pressing social issues

Bernardine's style was simple, direct, and full of captivating imagery, and he addressed pressing social issues. One of these was the violent partisanship of Italian towns. People would carry about the emblems of their faction, and so Bernardine began holding up a plaque with the initials "I.H.S.," an acronym for the name of JESUS, and had people place the emblem of the Holy Name over the entrances of their houses and businesses as a sign of peace and reconciliation. Some critics saw this imagery a dangerous innovation, and in 1426 he was called to Rome to answer changes of heresy.

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Wooden image of the Holy Name of Jesus monogram, carried by Bernardine during Lent in Prato, 1424

Quest to achieve justice in society

Bernardine's quest for achieving justice in society led him to tackle many burning issues of his day. For example, in an emerging capitalist economy, he defended the necessary role of business entrepreneurs but also developed the concept of a just wage.

Fiery temperament led to demonizing certain groups

Unfortunately, Bernardine’s fiery temperament led him to demonize certain groups in society. For example, he strongly denounced moneylenders who were gouging the poor, but since that profession was dominated by Jews, he can be accused of anti-Semitism. His sermons also display strong misogynistic and homophobic attitudes.

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                         Painting of Bernardine preaching in the campo of Siena by Sano di Pietro (1445). Note the separation of men and women in the audience.

Shaping the history of the Franciscan Order

Besides the great impact he had on his society, Bernardine shaped the history of the Franciscan Order; he served as Vicar General of the Observant Reform from 1438 to 1442, and his huge popularity attracted many young men to join it. When he entered, there were only about 130 Observants in Italy; by the time of his death, there were over 4,000. He also was influential in the reform of women's Franciscan congregations.

Vast popularity led to early canonization

Bernardine pushed himself to remain active until the very end of his life. Despite growing ailments, he continued his preaching tours until his death in L’Aquila in Abruzzo in 1444. His vast popularity led to his canonization only six years after his death.

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The basilica of St. Bernardino in L'Aquila that contains the saint’s tomb

His image became well known

Because Bernardine lived at the beginning of the Renaissance with the beginnings of realistic portraiture, his image quickly became well known. Although considered handsome in youth, he eventually lost most of his teeth, resulting in an emaciated appearance.

Patron of advertising, public relations, communications, gambling addiction

Today he is considered the patron of people engaged in advertising, communications, and public relations, as well as of people struggling with an addiction to gambling.

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Painting of San Bernardino by Dario di Giovanni da Pordenone (c. 1470). The three miters symbolize the three dioceses for which Bernardine was nominated—Siena (1427), Ferrara (1431), and Urbino (1435)—but which he turned down (Los Angeles County Museum).

Learn more about Saint Bernardine of Siena

For more detail on Bernardine’s life, see

For excerpts from one of Bernardine's homilies on the Holy Name, see

And for an example of his popular social preaching, see these selections on women