Thursday, October 03, 2013

New info on Francis of Assisi’s queer side revealed

Historical records reveal a queer side to Saint Francis of Assisi, one of the most beloved religious figures of all time. The 13th-century friar is celebrated for loving animals, hugging lepers, and praying for peace, but few know about his love for another man and his gender nonconformity. His feast day is today (Oct. 4).

For a new version of this article, click this link to
Francis of Assisi: Queer side revealed for saint who loved creation, peace and the poor

Francis is “a uniquely gender-bending historic figure” according to Franciscan scholar Kevin Elphick He has spent years researching the queer side of Saint Francis, including travel to to the Italian town of Assisi. There he photographed artwork depicting the man he believes may have been the saint’s beloved soulmate: Brother Elias of Cortona.

Brother Elias (center) at the Baptismal font where St. Francis was christened in the Cathedral of San Rufino in Assisi, Italy. (Photo by Kevin Elphick)

When Francis (1181-1226) was a young man, he had an unnamed male companion whom he dearly loved -- and who was written out of history after the first biography. Other Franciscan friars referred to Francis as “Mother” during his lifetime. He encouraged his friars to be mothers to each other when in hermitage together, and used other gender-bending metaphors to describe the spiritual life. He experienced a vision of an all-female Trinity, who in turn saluted him as “Lady Poverty,” a title that he welcomed.

The earliest companion of Francis, a man whom Francis “loved more than any other because he was the same age” and because of “the great familiarity of their mutual affection” remains nameless. Elphick's research suggests that the unnamed soulmate of Saint Francis was Brother Elias of Cortona. Francis called Elias “Mother” and gave him a special blessing. Elias expressed much concern about Francis’ body and his health. Francis and Elias each describe the other in affectionate terms. However, very quickly after Francis died, Elias is written out of history and discredited. Elphick presents the scholarly evidence about their relationship in the detailed article at the Jesus in Love Blog: “Brother Elias: Soulmate to Saint Francis of Assisi?

Lady Jacoba
also known as
Brother Jacoba
(See full image below)

Francis allowed a widow to enter the male-only cloister, naming her “Brother Jacoba.” (Details about Jacoba are at the end of this article.) His partner in ministry was a woman, Clare of Assisi, and he cut her hair in a man’s tonsured style when she joined his male-only religious order.

Early evidence of these and other ways that Francis crossed gender boundaries are gathered in the ground-breaking unpublished master’s thesis “Gender Liminality in the Franciscan Sources” by Elphick, who is both a Franciscan scholar and a supervisor on a suicide prevention hotline in New York. He wrote the thesis for a master’s degree in Franciscan studies from St. Bonaventure University in New York.

Francis’ love for another man is described in his earliest biography, The First Life of St Francis of Assisi by Thomas of Celano, a follower of Francis who knew him personally. The biography was completed by 1230, just four years after Francis died. Celano says that when Francis was in his 20s, before embracing a life of poverty, he dearly loved a special male friend:

“Now there was a man in the city of Assisi whom Francis loved more than any other, and since they were of the same age and their constant association and ties of affection emboldened Francis to share his secret with him, he would often take this friend off to secluded spots where they could discuss private matters and tell him that he had chanced upon a great and precious treasure. His friend was delighted and, intrigued by what he had heard, he gladly accompanied Francis wherever he asked. There was a cave near Assisi where the two friends often went to talk about this treasure.”

In his thesis, Elphick points out, “Because homosexuality and ‘gay’ identities are modern constructs, it is impossible and inaccurate to attempt to read these modern categories into the personalities of historical figures.” Instead he uses the word “homoaffectional” to describe the relationship of Francis and his beloved companion.

“The relationship is inescapably homoaffectional, describing a shared intimacy between two Medieval men. That this first companion disappears from the later tradition is cause for suspicion and further inquiry.... The tone in Celano’s earliest account captures the flavor and intimacy of this relationship, perhaps too much so for an increasingly homophobic church and society.”

Francis and his beloved friend are seldom depicted by artists, but they are shown together in the rare and hard-to-find image above: “They shelter in a cave” (Se cobijan en una cueva) by Spanish painter José Benlliure y Gil. It is the 8th in his series of 74 images from the life of Saint Francis. The series was published by Franciscans in Valencia, Spain, in 1926 in a book to mark the 700th anniversary of the saint’s death. A commentary in Spanish about the picture is available online.

Elphick finds many more examples of what he calls “gender liminality” in historical documents on Francis. He defines liminality as “crossing the threshold of gender, either symbolically, or by actions within a person’s life that breach the social boundaries of gender.”

Francis was born to a wealthy Italian family in 1181 or 1182. As a young man he renounced his wealth, even stripping off his clothes, and devoted himself to a life of poverty in the service of Christ. He connected with nature, calling all animals “brother” and “sister” and celebrating them in his famous Canticle of the Sun.

“St. Francis ‘Neath the Bitter Tree”
By William Hart McNichols ©
He saw the face of Christ in lepers, the most reviled outcasts of his time, and nursed them with compassion.  William Hart McNichols puts Francis’ ministry into a contemporary context by showing him embracing a gay Jesus with AIDS in “St. Francis ‘Neath the Bitter Tree,” pictured here. Words on the cross proclaim that Christ is an “AIDS leper” as well as a “drug user” and “homosexual,” outcast groups at high risk for getting AIDS. The two men gaze intently at each other with unspeakable love as Francis hugs the wounded Christ. It was commissioned in 1991 by a New Jersey doctor who worked with AIDS patients, and is discussed in the book Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ, and More by Kittredge Cherry.

McNichols created the icon in his own style based on a 1668 painting by Spanish painter Bartolome Esteban Murillo, which was surely inspired by the more passionate 1620 version of fellow Spaniard Francisco Ribalta. In Ribalta’s work (pictured below), Christ responds to St. Francis’ ecstatic kiss by giving the saint his crown of thorns, the symbol of suffering that leads to divine union.

“Saint Francis Embracing Christ” by Francisco Ribalta (Wikimedia Commons)

“St. Francis and the Sultan”
by Brother Robert Lentz,
A famous peace prayer is attributed to St. Francis. It begins, “God, make me an instrument of your peace.” Late in his life Francis embodied this message through man-to-man Christian-Muslim dialogue in the Mideast, a region where people are still at war.

In 1219 Francis went to Damietta, Egypt, with the European armies during the Fifth Crusade. He hoped to discuss religion peacefully with the Muslims. He tried to prevent Crusaders from attacking Muslims at the Battle of Damietta, but he failed. Francis was captured and taken to the sultan Malek al-Kamil. At first they tried to convert each other, but each man soon recognized that the other already knew and loved God. They remained together, discussing spirituality, for about three weeks between Sept. 1 and Sept. 26. Robert Lentz celebrates their meeting as a model of interfaith dialogue in the icon “St. Francis and the Sultan,” pictured here.

“St Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata”
by Kevin Raye Larson © 1991
In 1224, when Francis was in his 40s, he received the stigmata -- marks like the crucifixion wounds of Christ in his hands, feet and side. California artist Kevin Raye Larson emphasizes the sensuality of the ecstatic moment in “St Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata,” pictured here. The painting has appeared on the cover of the spirituality issue of “Frontiers,” the Los Angeles gay lifestyle magazine.

Along with the stigmata came other health problems. When Francis sensed death approaching, he called for Jacoba de Settesoli, a Roman noblewoman devoted to him and his teachings. Francis stayed in her house when in Rome.  Celano’s 13th-century account in the “Treatise on the Miracles of Blessed Francis” reports that Francis greeted the news of her arrival at the male-only cloister with a decidedly queer statement that breaks gender rules::

“Blessed be God, who has guided the Lady Jacoba, our brother, to us. Open the door and bring her in, for our Brother Jacoba does not have to observe the decree against women.”

The widow called “Brother Jacoba” by Francis kneels near the dying Francis of Assisi in “48. Jacoba of Settesoli is associated with the mourning” (Jacoba de Settesoli se asocia al duelo) by José Benlliure y Gil, 1926 (Wikimedia Commons)

Francis died a few days later on Oct. 3, 1226. Two years after Francis’ death, Pope Gregory IX declared him a saint and commissioned Celano’s biography, the one that includes the love between Francis and his male companion.

Elphick adds an intriguing footnote about how the queer side of Francis has manifested outside official Christianity. Francis is venerated in the Yoruba religion of Africa as Orunmila, the orisha of wisdom, patron of animals and a transgendered deity who engages in same-sex eroticism.

At the end of his thesis, Elphick concludes that breaking gender rules is an extraordinary God-given power or “charism” that Franciscans offer to the church and the world.

“What are the lives of figures like Mother Francis, Brother Jacoba and Mother Juana de la Cruz revealing to us in our own day? I think that the Franciscan charism of gender liminality has much to teach our Church and fellow community of humans in our day. In a church divided over issues of ordination of women, inclusive language, and sexual orientation, I believe that the Franciscan tradition has important figures to hold up and from whom to learn. For issues which we have not even yet begun to explore theologically in authentic ways, issues such as hermaphroditism, transsexuality, genderedness and sexual orientation, I believe the Franciscan voice can be prophetic.”

“Saint Francis in Ecstasy” by Caravaggio (Wikimedia Commons)
Related links:
"The Message of St. Francis" by Kevin C. A. Elphick (The Empty Closet)

To read this post in Spanish / en español, go to Santos Queer:
San Francisco de Asís: La evidencia histórica revela su lado gay

Animal blessing events are happening all over the world this month for the Feast of St. Francis, the patron saint of animals. Click here for animal blessing prayer by Kittredge Cherry.

Top image credit: Francis of Assisi and the man he loved in “They Shelter in a Cave” by José ___Benlliure y Gil, 1926 (Wikimedia Commons)

This post is part of the LGBTQ Saints series by Kittredge Cherry. Traditional and alternative saints, people in the Bible, LGBTQ martyrs, authors, theologians, religious leaders, artists, deities and other figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and our allies are covered.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved. presents the Jesus in Love Blog on LGBTQ spirituality.

Innovative icons of St. Francis and many others are available on cards, plaques, T-shirts, mugs, candles, mugs, and more at Trinity Stores


MadPriest said...

I have believed Francis to be gay for a long time. I base this assumption on the fact that much is written about his misspent youth, his carousing and drinking and getting into trouble. But there is absolutely no mention of any womanising whatsoever. He was a young Italian male for goodness sake! If he was carousing he would have most definitely have been womanising as well and that would have been mentioned by his biographers who wanted to emphasise his naughtiness before his conversion. The fact that there is no mention of Francis chasing young women must mean that he didn't. And for a young, rich Italian man there would be only one reason why he didn't.

Catholic Majority said...

Fascinating article. Thanks for sharing. It's a painful exercise to think of all the other Saint Francis-es we might have had throughout history in the intervening years if we had followed his example of peace and camaraderie throughout the ages, instead of focusing on a narrow definition of who and what are holy. Imagine if we had stuck with "Blessed are the peacemakers" and left off all the exceptions we have made throughout history to uphold some Jewish purity laws that Christ came to deemphasize in order to focus on love and respect.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Maybe I watched the movie “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” too many times, but I WAS surprised by the idea that St. Francis was queer. I’ve gotten several comments here and elsewhere from people like Madpriest who were not surprised.

Indeed, Catholic Majority, the world would be a better place if more people like St. Francis were able to build communities devoted to peace and harmony with nature.

Anonymous said...

Claire did not join Francis in his monastery. He founded the Poor Claires as a religious order for nuns where she could go.
"The fact that there is no mention of Francis chasing young women must mean that he didn't. And for a young, rich Italian man there would be only one reason why he didn't." Faulty logic!!

Kevin Elphick said...

Clare's early history is complicated. Francis "gave her [Clare] the tonsure before the altar in the church of the Virgin Mary, called the Portiuncula [where the friars had gathered in community], and then sent her to the church of San Paolo de Abbadesse [a Benedictine convent]." (Process of Canonization XII:4). From there, Clare next goes to Sant' Angelo de Panzo (Process XII:5) which was a community of Beguines, lay women. Finally, she arrives at San Damiano, where she will live the rest of her life. In the final year of his life, Francis locates himself in a small hut "near San Damiano." (LP 42-44; SP 90). San Damiano was the first "Poor Clare" community.

Kittredge Cherry said...

I checked with scholar Kevin Elphick about matters of fact raised by the anonymous comment, and he left his reply. Regarding Madpriest’s “faulty logic,” he may have intended that remark as a joke… but it reflects the “hermeneutic of suspicion” that is the basis of liberation theology. The idea is that anything gay gets censored, while heterosexual activity remains in the historical record.

Ray said...

Do you think the Spanish commentary was censored? It doesn't appear to come up. Where else can we get the series of 74 pictures you mentioned?

Kittredge Cherry said...

It wasn't censorship that prevented the Spanish commentary link from working -- just a plain old mistake on my part. Sorry about that! I fixed the link and you should be able to view it easily. Thanks for pointing it out.

For easy reference, here is the direct link:

Kittredge Cherry said...

Dr. Timothy, men who are attracted to other men can be quite brave. An example is Father Mychal Judge , chaplain to New York firefighters during the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.