In my 2019 Advent series I wrote about the creation of the Nativity scene placed in churches around the world at Christmas. The very first one was created by one of the most famous saints in history – St. Francis of Assisi (c.1187-1226).
It is on this day in 1209 the St. Francis founded the Order of Friars Minor, more popularly known as the Franciscans. The queerness of St. Francis is only just being examined and discussed in any great detail among academics. After writing my Advent article I looked further into what research was being done and my original opinion has changed slightly.
Throughout his life St. Francis expressed a flexibility of gender labels used for himself and his beliefs. He adopted the names of Lady Poverty and Mother. The first of these came about from a divine encounter contained in his first biography written by a contemporary and acquaintance, Thomas de Celano.
The encounter occurred when St. Francis was travelling with a doctor friend to Siena. Along the road they were met by three poor women. The one thing that astonished Francis and the doctor was that the women were identical, like triplets.
The women bowed to Francis as he approached them and they said “Welcome, Lady Poverty”. Thomas de Celano writes that this greeting delighted St. Francis as he had renounced his privileged and wealthy background to pursue a life of poverty. Thomas writes that Francis was delighted to be referred to as Lady Poverty.
Francis asked his friend to give the women some money and then continued on their way, but Francis glanced back and was astonished to see that the women had disappeared. The countryside was quite flat and featureless but he could not see where the women had gone. Francis and his friend agreed that it was “a marvel of the Lord”.
Medieval writers such as Thomas de Celano often peppered biographies of saints with apocryphal, and sometimes fantastical, stories to illustrate their subject’s sanctity. This encounter doesn’t appear in Francis’s own writings, or in early biographies of him.
Modern queer academics claim the encounter as St. Francis being met by the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit in Christian doctrine) in female form. Thomas de Celano doesn’t make this connection. Surely Francis would have mentioned something as significant as believing these women were the Holy Trinity. He said nothing. Academics have an answer for that, the usual answer when you don’t have to prove of your theory – deliberate suppression by the Church.
These three women have always been identified as the allegorical figures of Obedience, Poverty and Chastity, and were depicted frequently throughout medieval Christian art. Academics who support the Holy Trinity theory point us in the direction of one panel from an altarpiece painted in the 1400s by Stefano di Giovanni di Cossolo (known as Sassetta) from the convent of San Francesco in Sepolcro, Tuscany (below).
The panel has always been accepted as St. Francis meeting Obedience, Poverty and Chastity. Some academics claim it depicts the female Holy Trinity. There’s no evidence in the painting to indicate this. If you look closely, and it’s difficult to see on this image, as the women drift off into the sky they are holding something. These are objects that were associated with Obedience, Poverty and Chastity throughout the medieval period. Not one of those objects is associated with the Holy Trinity. It is clear who these women are and who they are not. They are NOT the Holy Trinity, and academics have invented Church suppression to justify their false interpretation to fit their claim (it reminds me of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” and the equally false interpretation of St. John as a woman and the “Da Vinci Code” nonsense).
This is where my opinion has changed since my 2019 Advent article. I am not convinced by the interpretation of the painting, or other supposed evidence, presented by the academics that indicate St. Francis ever met a female Holy Trinity.
We don’t need to invent queer aspects of someone’s life story like medieval biographers did. St. Francis shows his place on the queer spectrum without it. There was his close friendship, perhaps romantic relationship, with Brother Elias de Cortona (c.1180-1253).
Unfortunately, there is so little information about Elias before he joined the Franciscan Order that researchers, once again, jump on the “suppression and Church conspiracy” bandwagon. Thomas de Celano doesn’t introduce Elias by name until late into the first of his three-volume biography of Francis, after the Franciscans had been founded. He makes it clear that Francis and Elias were very close friends, writing that they loved each other “with great affection”.
Brother Elias does appear in a couple of other biographies from his time. From them we surmise that he was born the son of a mattress-maker and became a teacher. He may also have become a notary in Bologna before joining the Franciscans.
In Thomas de Celano’s biography there’s mention of a companion of St. Francis before the first named reference to Elias. Thomas describes this friend as someone Francis “loved more than any other”, and of the “great familiarity of their mutual affection”. In fact, in exactly the same terms as he used for Brother Elias’s relationship. So, could they be the same person?
This is not unlikely. Francis and Elias lived a century before the patriarchal homophobia of the Church began to dominate, and intimate same-sex friendships were not unknown. When St. Francis renounced his wealth and possessions he also renounced his family and friends – except, perhaps, Elias de Cortona.
There’s still so much we don’t know about their relationship. Sadly, Elias’s absence from written records may have more to do with the Franciscans objecting to the way he ran the Order after Francis’s death than any deliberate suppression of his same-sex relationship with him.
At the end of the day what can we say about St. Francis of Assisi? He had a close, probably physical, relationship with a companion in the days before he founded the Franciscan Order, who may have been Brother Elias de Cortona for whom he adopted the title of Mother. He believed that the figure of Poverty had affirmed his life as a poor friar and adopted the name Lady Poverty for himself. There’s no evidence that met a female Holy Trinity. There is a very queer aspect to St. Francis’s life and it helps to reveal more about the use of gender and sexuality labels in the medieval period. We are only just starting to understand the medieval world.