A few weeks back I published a blogpost on the blessed Fina of San Gimignano, a virgin recluse who eventually was appointed patron saint for her native city, despite not being recognised by the Papal church. In this blogpost I will give a brief introduction to the life and legacy of another saint from the similar category, namely Verdiana of Castelfiorentino.
Verdiana shares a number of traits with the blessed Fina. She was born in 1182 into an aristocratic family, but later forsook her riches and pursued a life of spirituality inspired by the teachings of Francis of Assisi, whom she allegedly once met. This led her on a pilgrimage to Santiago da Compostela, and upon returning home she became a recluse in her native town. Immured in her cell she lived a life of poverty, asceticism, forsaking of the flesh and contemplative devotion towards God. Thus she reportedly lived in Castelfiorentino for thirty-four years until her death in 1242. Towards the end of her life, it is traditionally believed that two snakes entered her cell and began eating her flesh. Being committed to the suffering of the body she allowed them to feed and lived in intense pain for the brief remainder of her life. This episode is often represented in art, as seen above.
Verdiana feeding the snakes, Benozzo Gozzoli, 1492
Courtesy of the this website
After her death, Verdiana became the subject of local devotion, and her first vita was written towards the end of the 13th century by an unknown author. This was a time when Franciscan and Dominican monks condemned this kind of popular, unauthorised devotion, as exemplified by Salimbene da Adam, a Franciscan chronicler. A few decades later, however, the Church was in disarray and mendicant orders sought therefore to employ these local cults to bolster a religiosity in tune with their own spirituality. At the turn of the 13th century, the anonymous vita, known as the Vita Antiquor, the old life, was collected in a hagiographical anthology by a monk called Blasio. This vita was the basis for a later rendition authored by Giacomini, a Dominican bishop, in 1420, a testament to the longevity of Verdiana's cult.
Another testament to the popularity of Verdiana's cult, and that she was famous beyond the reaches of Castelfiorentino, is a reference found in Boccaccio's Decamerone, day V, story x. In this tale, Boccaccio tells of a young woman who wishes to take a lover, and in order to procure one she seeks out the advice of "an acquaintance of an old bawd who to all outward appearances was as innocent as Saint Verdiana feeding the sepents, for she made a point of attending all the religious servics clutching her rosary" (translation by G. H. McWilliam), while in reality being a hypocrite whom Boccaccio effectively makes the young woman's pimp.
The cult of Verdiana also resulted in production of art. In 1490, the painter Benozzo Gozzoli, whose talents were also commissioned by the devotees of Fina of San Gimignano, painted the above fresco of Verdiana, and this was produced on the order of Castelfiorentino's podestà Jacopo di Antonio Peri.
Verdiana and the snakes, anonymous painting from the 15th century
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Boccaccio, Giovanni, The Decameron, translated by G. H. McWilliam, Penguin Classics, 1972
Vauchez, André, Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages, 2005