In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section San Bernardino of Siena

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Collections of Papers
  • Bibliographies
  • Bernardino as a Friar and Observant Reform
  • Bernardino as a Saint: Canonization and Cult
  • Bernardino as a Contested and Polemical Figure
  • Art and Iconography

Renaissance and Reformation San Bernardino of Siena
Letizia Pellegrini
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 June 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0196


Bernardino da Siena (b. 1380–d. 1444), born in Massa Marittima, Italy, left his birthplace after the death of his parents, Tollo di Dino Albizzeschi and Nera di Bindo Avveduti. After 1391 he lived with relatives in Siena. After studying canon law and after a period spent as an assistant in the Ospedale della Scala, he entered the Franciscan Order in Siena on 6 September 1402. Instead of remaining in the urban convent, he spent the year of his novitiate in the hermitage of Colombaio. This choice, and his later commitment to reform, justifies his important place in the history of the Franciscan Observance. From 1404 onward, he became an increasingly successful preacher, whose work soon had enormous pastoral, social, and political implications. By the end of his career he had become one of the most famous preachers in Italy because of his role in the renewal of preaching fostered by his fellow Observant friars. He preached continually, in diverse social and political contexts of the Italian towns. Often invited to preach in order to promote social order and peace among citizens, Bernardino was familiar with the delicate task of managing local political realities. His model for the social role of preaching was increasingly practiced by the Observant preachers, and even more intensively from the 1470s to the beginning of the 16th century. Bernardino’s high-profile career reached an early turning point in 1426, when he was charged with heresy (idolatry) for his custom of showing to the crowds, during his sermons, a wooden tablet with the name of Jesus (IHS). It was the first time that he incurred this kind of opposition. He was soon absolved (1427) and was one of the most effective architects of a strategy that sought to lead the cities of the Papal States to submit to papal government. This was the aim of his preaching in the towns of Umbria during the second half of the 1420s, and his campaigns often inspired a rewriting of urban statutes. He was appointed vicar for Tuscan Observants (1415) and vicar of the Italian Observants (1422–1438), in these years working closely with his fellow Giovanni da Capestrano. After preaching in Massa Marittima during Lent in 1444, he headed to L’Aquila, but he arrived there in very bad health and was unable to preach. He rested in the convent of St. Francis (instead of the Observant community of S. Giuliano, outside the city walls), and there he died on 20 May 1444. Immediately thereafter, popular devotion spread from L’Aquila to the many other cities linked to the memory of his preaching. By the request of the King Alfonso of Aragon, with the substantial support of L’Aquila and Siena and of the Observant friars, Eugenius IV authorized the opening of a canonization process. After three local inquiries (1445, 1447, 1448), Nicholas V canonized him in Rome on 24 May 1450. In 1474 his body was transferred to a new church erected in his honor.

Biography: Hagiographies and Biographical Research

Because of his canonization, the earliest biographies of Bernardino are actually hagiographies. Yet, these “early lives” were also the first sources for modern biographers. Some authors have written with an intent to edify, or to celebrate Bernardino as a “hero,” such that a hagiographical perspective is preserved even in most modern works. And despite the gradual emergence of a critical scholarly attitude, modern biographies are in many cases marked by a taste for the devotional or romantic. Both early lives and modern biographies were the basis of critical and learned biographical studies, the aim of which was first to focus on the activity of Bernardino as a preacher, the documents related to his canonization process, and the corpus of his Latin works.

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