And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

onsdag 25. september 2013

Travels in Tuscany, part 5 - The Blessed Fina of San Gimignano

Beata Fina di San Gimignano, Benozzo Gozzoli (1420-97)
Courtesy of Wikimedia

Italy can boast a wide number of saints, many of whom are local figures whose cults may be restricted to a small geography, such as one particular commune, most likely their native one, but nonetheless have resulted in a rich cultural and devotional expression. The blessed Fina of San Gimignano is one such saint whom I happened to come across during my wanderings in the city of a hundred towers.

Casa di Fina, which sadly was closed by the time I got there

Fina was born in San Gimignano in 1238 and died at the age of fifteen in 1253 on March 12. March is the season of gillyflowers in San Gimignano, and hence these became known as fiori di Santa Fina, the flowers of Santa Fina. According to local legend, they blossomed all over the city when she died. Her death had reputedly been foretold her three months in advance by St. Gregory the Great, to whom she was particularly devoted.

Gregory announcing the death of Fina, Scuola di Ghirlandaio, Capella di Fina

During her short life, Fina excelled in the ascetic religiosity that had become so extremely popular in the course of the 13th century. This was the age of mendicant friars, of Francis of Assisi and Dominic of Caleruega, and poverty and selfabnegation were keywords in the new paradigm of sainthood. Fina was struck by illness at the age of ten and became bedridden, and she was later orphaned. During her suffering she was known to proclaim to her visitors the devotion she harboured to Gregory, the Virgin and Christ until her death. This display of unwavering, patient religiosity no doubt struck a chord in the contemporary milieu, and would continue to attract attention as these virtues remained popular well into the 14th century.

Capella di Fina, duomo di Maria Assunta, scuola di Ghirlandaio
Pictures from the chapel courtesy of this website

After her death, it was reported that numerous miracles occurred at her tomb - or the plank that had been her bed according to some - and she became the centre of a local cult. In addition to the ascetic nature of her devotion, the fourteenth-century devotees may also have been attracted to her cult for her reclusion, an ideal of female sanctity that grew popular in those times. The typology of the female recluse also accorded well with the asceticism of the 13th century since the typical recluse-saint performed her imitation of Christ, the imitatio Christi, through poverty and self-mortification. This also became the century of the flagellants, which took this ideal in a somewhat different and more public direction.

It was a Dominican friar who wrote the vita of Fina di San Gimignano, Giovanni del Coppo who also was a native of that town, and it was typical for the mendicant orders to produce hagiography for local saints in the 1300s. Andre Vauchez notes that mendicant friars showed considerable interest in female lay sanctity in this period, regardless of whether the saints in question had belonged to their orders (Vauchez 2005: 210).

Another current of religiosity typical of the 14th century is also applicable to the posthumous life of Fina di San Gimignano. This is the veneration of saints who were not formally acknowledged by the Papacy, but who nonetheless attracted tremendous local popularity and who even were celebrated in the local liturgy. After the Papacy gained monopoly on canonisations in 1234 under Pope Gregory IX, such practice had never quite died out, but was very carefully executed. In the 14th century, however, this became increasingly normal, and Vauchez suggests this might have a connection to the schism and the crisis of authority prevalent in that time. It is of course also important to note that Italy, due to its fragmentary political map, had always and would continue to act rather independently of external authorities.

The casket of Blessed Fina
Courtesy of this website

The cult of Fina set its marks clearly on the city of San Gimignano. She was eventually elected to be the patron saint of the city, and a hospital in her honour was built only fifty years after her death. In 1457 the Popular Council decided to furnish a beautiful chapel dedicated to her in the collegiate church of Our Lady of the Assumption. The chapel was built in the period 1468-72 by Giuliano da Maiano, and his brother Benedetto made the altar in 1475. The walls of the chapel were decorated by Domenico Ghirlandaio and his school, as seen above.

Perhaps the most hauntingly beautiful artistic expression of Fina's cult is the portrayal of her life by Florentine artist Lorenzo di Niccolò. Here, Fina is shown here as the patron saint of the city, holding her native town in her left arm and some gillyflowers in her right hand. She is positioned next to St. Gregory, her particular saint.

Reliquary for Beata Fina by Lorenzo di Niccolò (1373-1412)
Courtesy of Wikimedia

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