By Anne Leader and Ioannis Tzortzakakis
20 May is the Feast Day of Saint Bernardino of Siena, commemorating the day of his death in 1444 in L’Aquila. His biography follows a trajectory familiar in saints’ lives: he was born to the noble Albizeschi family in Massa Marittima, a town in the Sienese contado. Orphaned by age six, Fra Bernardino degli albizzeschi (1380–1444) was raised by his aunt, who was especially pious. Though he studied civil and canon law, Bernardino was drawn to the religious life, first through the Confraternity of Our Lady at Siena’s Santa Maria della Scala hospital, which he led during the plague of 1400. Three years later he joined the Franciscan order and quickly became a popular preacher, traveling widely throughout Italy over the next three decades.
Bernardino was quickly canonized, named as a saint on 24 May 1450, only six years after his death, leading to a surge in demand for images, which are remarkably consistent, likely owing to the existence of portraits made from life. Bernardino was especially devoted to the Holy Name of Jesus, and designed what would become his signature symbol – the christogram IHS (or in medieval style IHC) framed by a blazing sun. He is typically shown as emaciated, suggesting an ascetic life devoted to God, dressed in the Franciscan habit, while holding the IHS monograph or a book, as a symbol of his preaching based on the Word of God.
Most famous depictions of St Bernardino of Siena are found in the cycle of frescoes of his life, which were executed towards the end of the fifteenth century by Pinturicchio in the Bufalini Chapel of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, Rome. There is also an altar panel at the Alte Pinakothek in Berlin, done by Pietro Perugino, known as The Virgin appearing to St. Bernard, showing the saint experiencing a vision of the Virgin Mary.
Francesco di Giorgio Martini, San Bernardino Preaching from a Pulpit, ca. 1470-75, tempera on parchment, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975
Sassetta, San Bernardino da Siena, 1444, tempera on panel, originally for Compagnia di San Giovanni Battista della Morte, Siena, now Pinacoteca Nazionale
Sano di Pietro, St Bernardino Preaching in the Campo of Siena, 1445, tempera on panel, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Siena
Benvenuto da Giovanni, St. Bernardino, ca. 1474, tempera on wood, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975
Jacopo Bellini, St Bernardino da Siena, 1450-55, tempera on wood, Private collection
Antonio Vivarini, Sts Jerome, Bernardino of Siena, and Louis of Toulouse, 1451-56, tempera on panel, San Francesco della Vigna, Venice
Matteo di Giovanni, St Bernardino Restoring a Child to Life, 1481-82, tempera and gold on panel, Private collection
Sano di Pietro, Donna Perna Being Cured on Approaching St Bernardino’s Body, tempera on panel, gold ground, Private collection
Jacopo Bellini, Saint Anthony Abbot and Saint Bernardino of Siena, 1459, tempera on poplar panel, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Pinturicchio, The Funerals of St. Bernardino, c. 1484-1486, fresco, Bufalini Chapel, Santa Maria in Aracoeli, Rome.
Pietro Perugino, The Virgin appearing to St. Bernard, c. 1490–1494, Oil on wood, Alte Pinakothek, Munich.