Text by Fr. Noel Muscat OFM
Clare of Assisi (1193-1253) can be defined as the feminine expression of the ideals of
Francis of Assisi. Her name means "the enlightened one". Her life was often seen
against the background of the radical Gospel ideals of Francis. It is only in recent
times, and particularly since 1953, and during the 8th centenary of her birth in 1993-94,
that Clare has emerged as a unique contribution to the ideals of Francis. Clare often
called herself "the little plant of the most blessed Francis" (Rule I,3;
Testament 37. 49). Her ideals matched those of Francis, but they are the expression of an
authentically female approach to the Gospel, and a proof that radical evangelical living
is not only the prerogative of male apostolic spirituality. We shall take a brief look at
her life, and then proceed to study her Writings, which portray a faithful picture of this
unique mediaeval woman whose role as a great mystic rivals that of other great female
figures of her age.
Clare was born in 1193-94, in a noble family, whose house overlooked the cathedral square
of Assisi. Her father was Favarone di Offreduccio di Bernardino, and her mother's name was
Ortolana. This pious woman was convinced that her daughter would be
"enlightened" by God, and hence called her Clare, after being assured of a safe
delivery in a vision (Process of Canonization of St. Clare - Proc III,28; Legend of St.
Clare = LegCl 2). Clare's childhood years were marred by some sad events, notably the
ransacking of the Rocca Maggiore by the Assisi citizens in 1198 and the war between Assisi
and Perugia. During these years, when Clare was still a child, the nobility had to flee
from Assisi and her family had taken refuge in Perugia. On the other hand, Clare was
growing up as an educated young lady, as befitted her noble status. From her mother
Ortolana she learned to become a woman of prayer, with a gentle heart, generous towards
the poor. These qualities were later to become the salient points of her spirituality.
St. Francis welcomes
Palm Sunday at the Porziuncola
Back in Assisi in the early years of the 13th century, Clare soon became aware of the
fresh ideals of Francis and his brothers, who were living down at the Porziuncola. She
longed to become a member of the new movement, but she was a noble woman, and her only
choice would have been that of joining one of the great monastic Orders for females,
notably the Benedictines. An apostolic and itinerant life for a noble woman was not a
common thing in the Middle Ages, even though we have ample witness of female movements
which harmonised contemplation with apostolic witness and a penitential life, such as
Beguines, Recluses, Hermits, etc. (cfr. H. Grundmann, Religiose Bewegungen im Mittelalter,
Darmstadt, 1961; Movimenti religiosi femminili nel Medio Evo, (italian translation),
Bologna, 1980). After a period of reflection, during which Clare met Francis on some
occasions, and most probably with the consent of bishop Guido of Assisi, Clare decided to
choose a life of radical evangelical poverty.
During the night of Palm Sunday (28 March 1211 or 18 March 1212, according to different
chronological tables which we shall not discuss here), Clare escaped from her family's
home in Assisi and hurried down to the Porziuncola, where Francis gave her the habit of
penance at the feet of the altar of the Virgin Mary of the Angels. That same night Clare
was escorted to the Benedictine monastery of San Paolo in Bastia Umbra, where she was
protected by papal interdict against possible intrusion by her family to take her back
home by force . After some weeks Francis transferred Clare to another monastery at the
foot of Mount Subasio, Sant'Angelo di Panzo. There Clare was joined by her sister Caterina
(Sister Agnese). All attempts by the paternal uncle Monaldo to take back the two girls by
force proved futile. Francis then sent Clare and Agnese to the small church of San Damiano
and gave them a Form of Life, which is the basis of the Rule of St. Clare. San Damiano was
to be the place where Clare lived a cloistered contemplative life, but with great
apostolic horizons, until the day of her death in 1253. The first sisters to join her
would be called the Poor Ladies of San Damiano. Although compelled to accept the title of
Abbess in 1215, a year later Clare asked Pope Innocent III to approve the Privilege of
Poverty, by which the Poor Ladies were bound to live without property like the Friars
Minor. This Privilege was confirmed by Gregory IX in 1228.
Click on picture to
We have an important document relating to the early years of the history of the Poor
Ladies of San Damiano, written by Jacques de Vitry (c. 1170-1240), who was Bishop of Acre
in the Holy Land. This historian was the biographer of the life of Marie d'Oignies, who
died in 1213, and a great enthusiast of the Beguine movement in northern Europe. While in
Perugia in 1216, after the death of Innocent III, he came into contact with the movement
initiated by Francis of Assisi. During the same year, in a letter written from Genova, he
"I found one consolation in those parts: many men and women, rich and worldly, after
renouncing everything for Christ, fled the world. They are called Lesser Brothers and
Lesser Sisters ("Fratres et Sorores Minores"). They are held in great esteem by
the Lord Pope and the cardinals. They do not occupy themselves with temporal affairs, but
work each day with great desire and enthusiastic zeal ... They live according to the form
of the primitive Church ... They go into the cities and villages during the day, so that
they convert others, giving themselves to active work; but they return to their hermitages
or solitary places at night, employing themselves in contemplation. The women live near
the cities in various hospices. They accept nothing, but live from the work of their
hands" (Clare of Assisi. Early Documents. Edited and Translated by Regis J. Armstrong
OFMCap, Paulist Press, New York, 1988, pp. 245-246).
Chapel of San
This picture of the first community of Poor Ladies shows certain characteristics worthy of
note. Clare and her Sisters were the product of Francis' evangelical initiative. They were
so close to the Friars Minor that they were also known by the name "Lesser
Sisters". Their way of life was a cloistered one, but not in the style of the old
monastic Orders. The cloister at San Damiano was more spiritual than material. Moreover,
the Poor Ladies lived close to the cities, and seemingly in close collaboration with the
apostolic work of the Friars Minor, of whom they shared the zeal in a contemplative
attitude. The Poor Ladies were quite unlike other female religious movements, in the sense
that they had no property. The Privilege of Poverty could be seen as the characteristic
note of Clare and the Poor Ladies of San Damiano.
The reason for this insistence upon voluntary radical poverty lay in the fact that the
Church was continually insisting that Clare and the Sisters accept a more stable way of
life according to the canons of monastic Orders. This would have included property in
common. Clare resolutely refused this condition, even when she had to accept a Rule given
by Cardinal Hugolino in 1218-19, which was modelled on the Rule of St. Benedict. Again, in
1247, Innocent IV made her accept another Rule, even though it placed the Poor Ladies
under the jurisdiction of the Friars Minor. Clare continued to insist, and went even as
far as taking the initiative of writing a Rule modelled upon the Later Rule of the Friars
Minor. This Rule was finally approved by the Cardinal Protector Rainaldus on 16 September
1252, and finally by Pope Innocent IV himself on 9 August 1253, just two days before Clare
||The Choir at San
years which Clare spent in San Damiano were marked by the spreading of her movement. In
1219 her sister Agnese was sent to found the monastery of Monticelli, near Florence.
Clare's ideals travelled far and wide, especially with the help of the first Franciscan
missionaries to northern Europe. In 1234 the Poor Ladies had a monastery in Prague
(Bohemia), where the princess Agnes took the penitential habit and began to live in
radical poverty according to the style of the Poor Ladies at San Damiano. Four letters
which Clare wrote to Agnes of Prague have been handed down to us.
3.10. Clare was
frail in physical health. Since 1224 she was always ill at San Damiano. Nevertheless her
strong character and youthful spirit never left her. She welcomed Francis, who was blind,
at San Damiano in the spring of 1225. There he wrote the Canticle of Creatures. To her and
the Sisters Francis directed his Last Will before dying, and his funeral cortege stopped
at San Damiano for a last farewell by Clare and the Poor Ladies on Sunday 4 October 1226.
of San Damiano
Click on picture to enlarge
3.11. Twice Clare saved San Damiano and her Sisters from plundering hordes of
Saracen mercenaries, especially in September 1240, through the miracle of the Eucharist
which Clare held while praying for her Sisters and the city of Assisi, and again from the
troops of Vitalis d'Aversa in June 1241 (Proc III,18-19). The first event was to leave an
indelible mark on later iconographical representations of Clare, even though the small
ivory ciborium she held on that occasion has often been represented as a post-Tridentine
3.12. As the day
of her death approached, Clare twice received the visit of Pope Innocent IV himself and
begged him to approve her Rule. This he did on 9 August 1253. Two days later, on 11
August, Clare died at San Damiano. Her last words are recorded by Sister Filippa, the
third witness in the Process of Canonization: "Go calmly in peace, for you will have
a good escort, because He who created you has sent you the Holy Spirit and has always
guarded you as a mother does her child who loves her. O Lord, may You Who have created me,
be blessed" (Proc III,20).
3.13. Just two
months later, on 18 October 1253, Pope Innocent IV nominated bishop Bartolomeo of Spoleto
to conduct the process of canonization, which was held in Assisi between 24-29 November.
On 15 August 1255, the successor of Innocent IV, Pope Alexander IV, who had been Cardinal
Protector of the Poor Ladies, solemnly canonised Clare in the cathedral of Anagni, and
promulgated the Bull of canonisation "Clara claris praeclara".
3.14. In 1260 the
Poor Ladies moved to their new monastery in Assisi, where the church of San Giorgio once
stood. They took with them the crucifix of San Damiano and the mortal remains of Clare.
After her death her Sisters became known as the Order of St. Clare (OSC).
3.15. The tomb of
St. Clare was found on 30 August 1850, and on 23 September her relics were exhumed. In
1872 they were placed in an urn in the cript of the basilica, for the veneration of
pilgrims. The original Rule of St. Clare with the bull of approval "Solet
annuere" was found in 1893.
History of the
San Damiano Crucifix
Umbrian artist painted the Crucifix Icon in the 12th Century. There is strong Syrian
influence, and history tells us that there had been some Syrian monks in the area.
It is painted on wood (walnut) to which cloth had been glued. It is about 190 cm high, 120
cms wide and 12 cms thick. It is more than likely it was painted for San Damiano to hang
over the Altar as the Blessed Sacrament was not reserved in non Parish Churches of those
times and especially those that had been abandoned and neglected as we know San Damiano
had been. In 1257 the Poor Clares left San Damiano for San Giorgio and took the Crucifix
with them. They carefully kept the Cross for 700 years.
In Holy Week of 1957, it was placed on public view for the first time over the new Altar
in San Giorgio's Chapel in the Basilica of St Clare of Assisi.
The Icon of the Transfigured Christ
Christians the Icon is a representation of the living God, and by coming into its presence
it becomes a personal encounter with the sacred, through the grace of the Holy Spirit. The
San Damiano Icon is then a personal encounter with the transfigured Christ - God made man.
The Crucifix contains the story of the death, resurrection and ascension into glory. It
expresses the total and universal Paschal Mystery of Christ. It invites us all to take
part in it with a lively and lived faith, just as St Francis did. Christ's saving death is
shown in John's Gospel in its serene majesty, and this Crucifix portrays this in picture
form. It is not surprising that Saint Francis was attracted to this Icon and that the
inspiration for his life came from this Christ who spoke to him "Go repair my Church
Figure of the Christ
figure of the icon is Christ, not only because of the relative size, but because Christ is
a figure of light dominating the scene and giving light to the other figures "I am
the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the
light of life. " (John 8:12). Christ stands upright, not nailed. The eyes of Jesus
are open: He looks out to the world, which He has saved. He is alive, the one who is
eternal. Jesus' vestment is a simple loin cloth - a symbol of both High Priest and Victim.
The chest, throat and neck are very strong, Jesus gives power of re-creation to His
Disciples (John 22:23). He breathed on His Disciples (John 20:22), the Greek word used
recalls the moment of Creation (Gen 2:7). The shadow over the face of Jesus is increased
by the fact the halo and face are tilted forward on the original Icon. The humanity of
Christ veils the true glory of the Word who lives in the super illuminous darkness of the
Godhead. Behind the outstretched arms of Christ is His empty tomb, shown as a black
Medallion and Inscription.
Ascension is portrayed within this circle of red: Christ is breaking out of the circle,
holding a golden cross which is now His Royal Sceptre. His garments are gold - a symbol of
royalty and victory. His red scarf is a sign of His Dominion and Kingship; exercised in
love. Angels welcome Him into Heaven. IHS are the first three letters of the name of
Jesus. The little bracket above indicates it is shorthand. NAZARE is the Nazarene; REX is'
king' and IUDEORUM is 'of the Jews', which is reported in St John's Gospel "Jesus the
Nazarene, King of the Jews"
The Hand of the Father
within the semi-circle at the very top of the Icon, He whom no eye has seen reveals
Himself in a benediction. This blessing is given by the right hand of God with the finger
extended - the Holy Spirit. The Father gives the gift of the Holy Spirit to all because of
the merits of the Christ's Passion.
The Mystical Vine
Cross are various calligraphic scrolls which may signify the mystical vine "I am the
vine, you are the branches... " (John 15), which also contain the words "Greater
love has no one than this, that one lays down one 's life for one friends ". At the
base of the cross there seems to be a section that looks like a rock - the symbol of the
Church. The seashells are symbols of eternity - a mystery hidden in the vast and timeless
sea of eternity is revealed.
Mary and John
in John's Gospel, Mary and John are placed side by side. Mary's mantle is white meaning
victory (Rev 3:5), purification (Rev 7:14); and good deeds (Rev 19:8). The gems on the
mantle refer to the graces of the Holy Spirit. The dark red worn under the mantic indicate
intense love, while the inner dress is purple - the Ark of the Covenant (Ex 26: 1-4).
Mary's left hand is raised to her cheek - her acceptance and love of John, and her right
hand points to John while her eyes proclaim acceptance of Christ's words "Woman,
behold your son... " (John 19:26). The blood drips on to John at this moment. John's
mantle is rose colour indicating eternal wisdom, while his tunic is white - purity. His
position is between Jesus and Mary as is fitting for the disciple loved by both of them.
He looks at Mary "Son, behold your Mother", but points to Christ.
There are 33
figures in the Icon - Two Christ figures, 1 Hand of the Father, 5 major figures, 2 smaller
figures, 14 angels, 2 unknown at His hands, 1 small boy, 6 unknown at the bottom of the
Cross and one rooster. There are 33 nail heads along the frame just inside the shells and
seven around the halo.
The Other Major Figures:
is next to Christ making her very special; her hand is on her chin indicating a confided
secret "He is risen ". She wears scarlet, which is a symbol of love; her mantle
of blue deepens this.
authorities make her the mother of James. She wears garments of an earthen colour a symbol
of humility, and her light green mantle - hope. Her admiration of Jesus is indicated by
the gesture of her hand.
Centurion of Capernaum.
He holds a
piece of wood in his left hand, indicating his building of the Synagogue (Luke 7: 1 - 10).
The little boy beyond his shoulder is his son healed by Jesus. The three heads behind the
boy show "he and his whole household believed" (John 4: 45 - 54). He has
extended his thumb and two fingers, a symbol of the Trinity, while his two closed fingers
symbolise the hidden mystery of the two natures of Jesus the Christ. "Truly He is the
Son of God" (Mark 15:39).
The Lesser Figures:
The Roman soldier who pierced Jesus' side with a lance.
gives this name to the soldier who offered Jesus a sponge soaked in vinegar wine after
Jesus cried out "I thirst" (John 19: 28 -30).
The Unknown Saints.
||At the bottom
of the Icon are six unknown saints whom Scholars postulate are Sts Damian, Rufinus,
Michael John the Baptist, Peter and Paul, all patrons of Churches in the Assisi area. St
Damian was the Patron of the Church that housed the Cross and St Rufinus was the Patron
Saint of Assisi. There is too much damage of that area to make a proper identification.
||There sat two
groups of angels - animatedly discussing the scene unfolded before them. "For God so
loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall
not die but have life everlasting" (John 3:16).
before behind Christ is the open tomb; Christ is alive and standing over the tomb. The red
of love overcomes the black of death. The gestures of the unknown saints at His hands
indicate faith. Could these be Peter and John at the empty tomb? (John 20: 3 - 9).
inclusion of the rooster recalls the denial of Peter who wept bitterly. Secondly, the
rooster proclaims the new dawn of the Risen Christ 1 the true light (1 John 2:8).
"But for you who revere my name, the Sun of Righteousness will rise with healing in
its wings" (Malachi 4:2 or 3:20 depending on your translation).
Shape of the Cross.
The shape of
the Cross has changed to enable the artist to include all who participated in the drama of
the Passion. Note that the arms of the cross lift to Christ's right indicating that the
Good Thief (traditionally called Dismas) went to Heaven; while the left hand dips - the
other thief did not.