SAINTS & ART: Frances died in 1440 and was canonized in 1608
Frances was born in 1384 into a wealthy Roman family. She was a wife, mother, mystic, dispenser of charity and founder of a religious community of female oblates. (Medieval Catholic women soooo lacked “agency.”)
She wanted to be a nun, but her parents had other plans, which involved an arranged marriage to the wealthy commander of papal troops in Rome. She and her sister-in-law began giving charity to Rome’s needy and, when her mother-in-law died, Frances assumed responsibility for household goods. During an emergency, she turned part of a family country estate house into a hospital. Tradition has it that her father-in-law took away her keys to the supply house, convinced she was profligate, but relented when, by her prayers, the supplies remained stable, her charity notwithstanding. One recalls the words of Elijah to the widow of Zarephath to trust in God: “The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug will not run dry …” (1 Kings 17:14).
Frances lived at the time of the Western Schism, when the Church was divided between popes and anti-popes. Frances’ household was loyal to the papacy. It’s said that her son was supposed to be taken as a hostage by the Neapolitans but she prayed in the Church of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli. (Most visitors to Rome know this church, near the “Wedding Cake” Victor Emmanuel Monument, at least for its daunting staircase!) When the soldiers who were to take the child put him on a horse, the horse would not move, despite their beating it. They relented.
Her husband’s loyalty to the papacy resulted in his banishment and eventual loss of much of his wealth. He was also wounded in battle, from which he never fully recovered. He died in 1436, four years before Frances.
Fifteenth-century Rome was in many ways a devastated city. The fighting between sides of the Western Schism brought destruction to the city, and with destruction came disease. Frances’ corporeal and spiritual acts of mercy were more needed than ever.
Frances’s mystical visions included the end of the Western Schism, as well as of her guardian angel and of purgatory and hell. It is said she declared the date of her death.
Her example mobilized other Roman women, who she eventually brought together in an association of oblates at first connected to the Benedictines and then in 1433 a congregation of their own right, the Benedictine Oblate Congregation of Tor di Specchi, whose members lived a religious life dedicated to prayer and good works but without vows or cloister. With her husband’s consent, she practiced a life of continence and, after his death in 1436 (their marriage lasted about 40 years), she retired to that community. Her community appears to have one house, in Rome. The community defines as its characteristics devotion to the Blessed Virgin, the guardian angels, and the service of the Church of Rome.
Frances died in 1440 and was canonized in 1608.
Antoniazzo Romano (ca. 1430-1510) was an early Renaissance artist in Rome. Among his works was a series of frescos in the Tor di Specchi community that depict moments from the life of St. Frances. The frescos date from the late 1460s.
The fresco, “The Miracle of the Grain,” depicts Frances dispersing grain as charity. On the left she gathers a generous portion, presumably from her stores, bearing in mind “good measure, pressed down shaken together and overflowing … the measure by which you measure will be measured out to you” (Luke 6:38). On the right, she gives it to those begging at her door. Note that those beneficiaries, unlike Lazarus (Luke 16:20-21), are not in rags: need is not always visible to the eye. Indeed, the person dressed most poorly in the scene is the materially (and spiritually) richest: Frances. Her simple gown and veil contrasts to the Renaissance finery of those around her. And presumably the grain, like the Zarephath widow’s flour, did not run out in the hands of a good wife who “extends her hands to the needy” (Proverbs 31:18-20).
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