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

søndag 22. februar 2015

Santa Margherita da Cortona

Estasi di santa Margherita, Jacopo Alessandro Calvi (1740-1815)
(Courtesy of Wikimedia)

Today, February 22, is the feast-day of Margaret da Cortona (c.1247-97), and in this blogpost I wish to give a very brief overview of her life and posthumous reputation, which was caught up in the religious fervor of the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century vogue of sanctity, and she was at the same time a typical representative of this religiosity, and also in certain ways slightly at odds with the criteria of sainthood at that time.

Margaret’s life was shaped by her attempts to navigate between the many sorrows and misfortunes she became subject to. She was born to a family of farmers in Tuscany, and she lost her mother at a young age. Her father remarried, but Margaret was ill-treated by her stepmother, and it might have been this conflict which made her succumb to the seduction of Arsenio, a knight from Montepulciano whose mistress she was for nine years, and with whom she bore a son. The knight was in the end murdered and Margaret and her son returned to her father’s house, but since her stepmother convinced Margaret’s father not to take her back, she was forced to seek help among the Franciscans. She and her son were taken care of by two ladies apparently connected with the order, and in the next years Margaret undertook a long and harsh series of public penitence for her former life outside wedlock.

Margaret da Cortona making the devil weep
Gaspare Traversi (c.1722-70)

Typical of thirteenth-century ideals of holiness, Margaret performed several acts of mortification, but in abhorrence of her past – no doubt exacerbated by the emotional distress brought on by her family’s rejection – she even went so far as self-mutilation. She was also said to mistreat her son. After years in extreme penitence, Margaret was allowed into the Third Order of St. Francis and thus became a Franciscan tertiary, a typical feature of many of the saints of late medieval Italy. In her life as a tertiary, Margaret dedicated her time to nursing the poor, yet retained a life of austerity marked by a harsh diet, little sleep and mortification by a haircloth worn next to the skin. She founded the hospital of Santa Maria della Misericordia at Cortona, and in that city she also started preaching to call people to repentance after having had received a call to do so in one of her numerous visions. She appears to have been somewhat successful in her preaching, but despite her successes in her religious work, it appears she was the subject of much slander and opprobrium, which added to her distress.

Estasi di santa margherita da cortona, Giuseppe Maria Crespi (1665-1747)
Courtesy of Wikimedia

After her death, it was reported that cures were given at her tomb, and she is said to have “attracted visitors from other parts of Italy and even further afield” (Farmer 2004: 345). Her spiritual life was recorded in Legenda de vita et miraculis beatae Margharitae de Cortona, which was written by Giunta Bevignate, a friar minor and one of Margaret’s confessors, and this was commissioned by Giovanni da Castiglione, a friar minor who was also among her confessors and an inquisitor. In 1318 the commune of Cortona petitioned the Papal See for Margaret’s canonisation, but along with other religious women of the era – such as Angela di Foligno and Clare di Montefalco – the petitioned failed to gain approval. André Vauchez has suggested that this was because of Margaret’s connection to the Joachimite and vehement papal critic Ubertino da Casale (d.1330), who was exiled to a convent by Pope Benedict XI (Vauchez 2005: 76-77). However, it should be noted that the fact that she came from a humble origin and that she was not a virgin were also severe hindrances for her enrollment in the sanctorale, since these prerequisites were highly valued by the curia in this period.

Saint Margaret in penitence, Antonio Bresciani (1720-1817)
Courtesy of Wikimedia

Although Margaret never formally obtained an official papal confirmation of her sanctity, she seems to have been venerated in Cortona for centuries after her death. In 1515, the diocese of Cortona was allowed to celebrate her feast, but her formal canonization did not take place until 1728. Because of this, the 18th century saw a flourishing of art featuring Margaret, and she was rendered by several of Italy’s greatest artists. In much of her spiritual work Margaret fits well into the ideal of female religiosity of the thirteenth century, but in her excessive penitence and her troubled past which did not align with the ideals of life-long purity in late-medieval sainthood, she was also untypical of the many women venerated as saints in Italy at that time.

Saint Margaret of Cortona, Giovanni Battista Piazzetta (1682/83-1754)
Courtesy of Wikimedia

For other late-medieval Italian female saints, see the following blogposts:

Fina di San Gimignano

Verdiana di Castelfiorentino


Farmer, David, Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford University Press, 2004

Vauchez, André, Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages, translated by Jean Birrell, Cambridge University Press, 2005

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