The Clare Icon

A picture of the new woman

Every story tells a picture. This is the picture:

This magnificent Romanesque icon hangs in the Basilica of Saint Clare in Assisi, which is built over the chapel of San Georgio where Clare was first buried. This is a hagiographic or historiated icon - it tells the story of the saint's life. Painted around 1280 by an unknown artist, possibly an itinerant painter from Otranto or the Basilicata regions of Southern Italy, it is thought to be the earliest picture of Clare to have survived. Although this picture is constructed in the iconographic style of the Christian east, it was never intended to hang on an icon screen. Like the Latin inscriptions under the various small scenes, its use is western in concept if eastern in style. It is several feet high and is intended to hang above an altar - which it still does. The thing which makes it unique, however, is that the painter had a lot of inside information: and not just of the sort culled from reading the contemporary "Legend of St Clare" The picture consists of a central panel of Clare and eight very carefully chosen scenes from her life. The arched architectural backgrounds in the miniature scenes are an iconographic device to show that they take place indoors, but, periodically a building that is still on the Assisi skyline emerges from the pattern, like the Minerva Church. Other evidences of inside information also appear. However, this picture is very remote from an earthly portrait; the painter is trying to show the indwelling of God in his saint, and he has chosen for his theme the map of sanctity laid out by Christ in the Gospel - the beatitudes. The eight miniatures that surround Clare show how the Word of God in the eight beatitudes bore fruit in her life.

The story starts in the lowest of the miniatures on Clare's left hand  

Palm Sunday 1212

You did not choose me, no, I chose you to go out and bear much fruit. (Jn 15:16)


The people at Mass file up to receive the blessed palms. Clare remains in her place. Is she afraid? Does she think that her going out of the city walls, planned for this night, might lead, as the first Palm Sunday led, to Calvary? Or is it a sign? Does Guido, Bishop of Assisi, know what is going to happen and gives it his blessing?
All we know is that he stepped down from the altar to take the palm to the girl who has not come up for it. In the picture Clare stands in front of her sister Agnes, surrounded by other women. Both sisters have crowns of myrtle, the symbol of fruitfulness and virginity. Clare wears a red dress, but the artist has slit it to show a penitential hair cloth tunic below. Clare is one of the poor in spirit, she had not presumed to choose or to take for herself- she has let God choose for her and has been the receiver of his gifts.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Mt 5:3)  

A Great Bargain

Sell what you have and give it to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven, and come follow me.. (Lk 18:22)

Reflecting on this night, Clare wrote, many years later, 'What a great bargain it is to exchange the things of time for those of eternity!" Francis and his brothers wait with lighted torches at the little church of Saint Mary of the Angels that Francis has rebuilt. Francis is only a tenant - he has to pay an annual rent of a basket of fish to the Benedictines for its use. Clare has come to give her life away. On the night of Palm Sunday 1212 Clare came alone, but the love of family and security that could hold her back is literally personified behind her. The five disapproving ladies and the furtive gentleman are members of the Offreduccio household. The woman half clinging to and half offering Clare is no doubt her own mother, Ortulana, who later became a Poor Clare herself, and the sneaky looking gent at the back is Uncle Monaldo, who will reappear in the fourth and fifth miniatures. If this picture were to have a title it would be "The world and the Spirit contend for the heart of Clare." The offended ladies drawing their cloaks aside and shaking their fingers at the brothers are being confronted by another element that was not present on the night - the marks of the nails in the hands and feet of Francis. Throughout this icon, the artist shows Francis with the marks of the nails in his hands and feet, this is not because he does not know that they came rather later, nor is it simply a trade mark to identify Francis, for he already has one; his halo. It is a statement about the relationship of Francis and Clare; which is not a half-earthy romance, but a meeting in the wounds of Christ. In his wounds is their peace for the blood of Christ has made them one.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God (Mt 5:9)  

The Lady Poverty

The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the son of Man has nowhere to lay his head . (Mt 8:20)

Inside the church of the Portiuncula Clare kneels before the altar. She is now wearing the habit. With scissors in his wounded hands, Francis snips away at Clare's long tresses. The brothers look startled - as well they might, for Francis is taking vast (and, no doubt, quite unconscious) liberties with Canon Law. Clare is alone now, without even the symbolic presence of companions. But here comes the insider touch: neatly painted, beyond the sleeve of her habit, is the cuff of her red dress. The painter knew too much about Francis, (who always swore that he only know two ladies by sight) to think that the Lady Clare would have been required, or even allowed, to undress with the thoroughness Francis showed at his own conversion. In a beautiful scene in the Zeffirelli film Brother Sun and Sister Moon "Clare" meets the brothers by daylight in a stream by a waterfall, and flinging off her dress stands with her shift blowing in the breeze. A beautiful image. But it never happened.   This picture shows the covenant of mercy, the covenant between the sexes that our age struggles so ineffectively after. Clare is accepted and respected as a unique human person without having to abnegate her sexuality or needing to display it. Her freedom lies in belonging completely to God. Looking at the meaning of the word miserecordia, from which mercy is derived; it has a lot to do with allowing anguish to be planted in our hearts. Francis and Clare lived this reality to the full. Francis agonised, in great loneliness, over the call to follow his Lord in the Gospel way of life. Clare allowed him to plant his insights into her heart and lived them - allowing him in turn to find support and strength in his hour of temptation and weakness, when all that he stood for was questioned by his brothers and blind and dying, he was living in a wattle hut by San Damiano .

Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy. (Mt 5:7)  

The ways of the cross

Do not be afraid for I have overcome the world. (Jn 16:13)

So, on Palm Sunday night, Francis and Brother Philip escorted Clare to the Benedictine Monastery of San Paolo. Not because any of them thought that Clare should become a Benedictine, but for the a very practical mediaeval reason: San Paolo's had the Right of Sanctuary. If Clare took refuge there she could not be dragged away by force. Francis expected trouble, but he did not wait around to confront it. Throughout his life, their covenantal relationship left Clare free to make her own choices and to live out her absolute trust of God. The unfortunate Benedictines, shown here with stripe-edged veils, must have had a traumatic Holy Week. The Offreduccio clan arrived as one man, trying to persuade her to give up such a worthless deed that was unbecoming to her class and without precedent in her family. But taking hold of the altar cloths, she bared her shorn head, maintaining that she would in no way be torn away from the service of Christ. With the increasing violence of her relatives her spirit grew, and her love - provoked by injuries - provided strength.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness for the kingdom of heaven shall be theirs. (Mt 5:10)

Firstborn of the Family of Faith

If they persecuted me they will persecute you also. (Jn 15:20)

A few days after this, probably on Easter Monday, Francis collected Clare and took her to the innovative little Beguine community of San Angelo, whose lifestyle was very different to that of her first hostesses, the Benedictines. The Beguines led independent lives of personal poverty and were a sort of mixture between a secular institute and a hermitage. But Clare's spirit, to quote the contemporary Legend, "could find no rest there". The unrest was mutual. A fortnight later, Clare's younger sister Agnes ran away to join her. There was no Right of Sanctuary at San Angelo and Uncle Monaldo and his knights dragged Agnes out literally by her hair. Clare "prostrated herself in prayer with tears" and the men seemed suddenly unable to drag Agnes any further. In a final fit of fury Monaldo drew his sword to kill the teenage girl, but the Lord’s power, Clare's prayers and, no doubt, his own bad conscience, paralysed his arm. Clare came out from the church and persuaded them to go, which they did "in a bitter spirit at their unfinished business." An inset in the top of this picture shows Agnes being received into the Order. Francis reaches out to cut off her hair. But her hands are placed in fealty between Clare's hands, for it is to Clare, as her representative of the obedience of Christ, to whom Agnes commits herself. Another insider touch, and a very modern one. Agnes' preservation is a miracle. She is saved from being dragged home because her body has seemed to become so heavy that it cannot be moved. She has, quite literally, inherited the earth at the humble prayer of her sister. This is the Clarean way of confronting violence - by prayer and persuasion, for perfect love casts out fear.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. (Mt 5:5)  

Daily Bread

Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them and we will come to them and make our home in them. (John 14:23)

After this, Francis finally took Clare and Agnes to San Damiano. It was in this church that he had heard the voice from the crucifix saying: "Rebuild my Church, which, as you see, is falling down", and it was here that he had prophesied, before he had a single brother: "Here will come to dwell ladies who will glorify our heavenly Father throughout his holy and universal Church by their celebrated and holy manner of life." San Damiano had to be rebuilt, of course, before the sisters could come home to it - and by the look of its architecture, it was prophetically enlarged as well. Not that in the beginning of her new life sisters came to join Clare in a great rush; the development was slow, to begin with, but by her death there were fifty sisters in San Damiano and maybe as many as one hundred Poor Clare communities in Europe. They did - and do - nothing spectacular. The objective of their life as Clare puts at the head of her Rule, is "to observe the holy Gospel, by living in obedience, without property and in chastity." They live and work together. They pray and adore God, they give help to those who come to their door seeking the fruit of prayer and healing. And when what they earn and what is given to them does not suffice, they beg. Assisi did not take this lying down. Why should women - some of them from wealthy families - give away their dowries to the poor and then expect Assisi to chip in and contribute? Charity was not always forthcoming. The multiplication of bread is a part of the Gospel account - our Lord did it himself. Here two of Clare’s miracles are shown - one loaf of bread being cut to feed fifty sisters, part of it going to the friars who served at San Damiano, (one sister is carrying the cut off portion away) and the multiplication of the oil. Clare washed the oil cruse with her own hands and had it put out for one of the brothers to take begging, but it was filled immediately before he could leave. Bread for the hungry and oil for gladness - and a lifestyle whose priority is seeking first the kingdom and its righteousness. This being observed, God takes care of the rest.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall have their fill. (Matthew 5:6)  

A good escort

At midnight there was a cry, behold the bridegroom is here, come out to meet him. (Mt 25.6)

In this picture Clare lies on a rough woollen mattress stuffed with straw, on the stone flagged floor of the dormitory at San Damiano. As she is dying she exclaims, "Go forth with confidence for you have a good escort for your journey. Go forth, for he who created you has made you holy, and has loved you with a very tender love as a mother does her child." When sisters asked to whom she was speaking, she answered, "To my blessed soul. I bless you, 0 Lord, because you have created me!" Then. turning to her sisters "Can you, too, see the King of glory?" A witness at Clare's canonisation, Sr Benvenuta, who knelt at her bedside, began to think of the great holiness of the Lady Clare and how it seemed that the whole court of heaven would be preparing to honour her, "then I suddenly saw with my own eyes (no, I was not asleep,) a great multitude of virgins in white with crowns, entering through the door of the room, and among the virgins one who was more beautiful, wearing a magnificent crown.... and they covered the Lady Clare with a most delicate cloth. Then the Virgin of Virgins bowed her head over the Lady Clare and disappeared."

Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God. (Matthew 5:8)  

The people in darkness see light

Truly I say to you, wherever this Good News is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remebrance of her. (Mt 26.13)

Clare has accomplished all that the Lord desired of her, and here we have a veritable eye-witness picture of her funeral Mass in the Church of San Georgio. Pope Innocent IV, who was staying in the neighbouring city of Perugia, and had already visited Clare on her deathbed, has come with his retinue to bury the saint. Clare lies on a trestle with her head on a scarlet and gold cushion that is still preserved at the Sacro Convento. The pall, which is shown here matching it, has obviously disappeared over the centuries. Both were first used for the burial of Francis and are possibly the work, and certainly the gift of the Lady Jacopa de Settisoli, the lady whom Francis called Brother Jacopa. The pillow is kept with two other cloths embroidered by Jacopa and has a design of alternate eagles and lions - the Imperial insignia. Behind Clare stands a brother holding the processional cross (the same cross was used at Francis' obsequies) and the holy water stoup and brush. They are gazing at the Pope in surprise. So are those in his train; some of whom are dressed in purple or black while others - including Innocent himself, wear red. The Pope wished to omit the funeral Mass and say that of the Common of Virgins instead. For to Innocent, clearly, Clare was already a saint. The cardinals implored him to behave in a more seemly manner and the irate prelate on his right is holding the Missal firmly open at the "Lux perpetua luceat in aeternam". But Innocent could only be persuaded to defer her canonisation for the same two years that had elapsed between the death and canonisation of Francis. In a way, this is a strange picture with which the cycle should end. Clare is in heaven. In the preceding picture, Our Lady has come to escort her to her Bridegroom. It is we, now, who are gathered around her relics, the relics that are still preserved in Santa Chiara. We are one with the Pope who knew her personally, with the brothers who called her Mother, to us belongs the blessedness of mourning and to us is offered, through the saving cross upheld over Clare's head, through the final absolution of the funeral service, the comfort of heaven, the forgiveness of sins which Clare herself sought and which she received.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. (Mt 5.4)  

The centre

The poor woman of Assisi

In the centre panel, Clare stands in a plain grey tunic of unbleached wool. About her waist is the cord with its three knots, symbolising the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. On her head is a veil of thin black wool with a lining of white linen. She wears a cloak of russet, or lazzo, as it was known in Italy, a cheap, coarse woollen mixture.  

The Pilgrim

In her left hand Clare holds a short stave surmounted by the Jerusalem Cross. This is the Crusaders' cross, the symbol that they "took" and had sewn to their garments as a sign that they were pilgrims and soldiers who wished to "rebuild the Jerusalem on earth." With her right hand, Clare points to this cross and looks us in the eye. As in all icons, the viewer is part of the picture.   Clare wished to go to the Holy Land. One of the witnesses at her canonisation said "She had such a fervent spirit that she would have willingly endured martyrdom for the defence of the faith and her Order, for the love of God. Before she was sick, she desired to go to those parts of Morocco where it was said the brothers had suffered martyrdom." Another early source (Bartolowmeo of Pisa) tells us that she was deeply moved by the plight of Moslem women, to whom she wanted to bring the Good News.   But she lived this pilgrimage, this going out, in one place. “We are strangers and pilgrims in this world," she said, of the way she desired her sisters to live. In her last blessing, she prays that her sons and daughters be counted amongst the Church Militant on earth.

The Passover

The prophetic mystery at the root of Franciscan living is the Passover. At the Fourth Lateran Council, Pope Innocent III had proclaimed for the Church: "A Passover in the flesh which should be marked by the liberation of Jerusalem on earth, a Passover of the Spirit whereby the whole Church should pass from vice to virtue and lastly an eternal Passover celebrating the passage from this life to the glory of heaven." Innocent III had seen himself as the prophet Ezechiel, the man with the scribe's ink horn, going out to mark the elect with the sign of the Tau. And, if you look closely at Clare's brow, in the middle of the thumb print of the hand of God which stands for the anointing of the Holy Spirit and is always present on the brows of saints in classical iconography, there is a delicate but distinct T. As it happens, Tau in the Hebrew alphabet is an X. But Pope Innocent III, Francis, Clare and the painter of this panel all took it to be a Greek Tau which is the letter T and with which Francis signed his correspondence.

The Invitation

We are not contemplating all this as outsiders. Clare is looking at us, she is inviting us to go on this spiritual pilgrimage and this eternal Passover, so as to arrive home on the other side in heaven.

Become what you are

At first glance, there is one important thing missing from this icon. And it might be said to be the central mystery of her life: Clare and the Eucharist. Clare repelling the Saracens with the Blessed Sacrament is absent from the hagiographic scenes, and she is not depicted, as later artists have preferred to show her, holding the monstrance. That is because the artist and his age had a more realistic grasp of sanctity than we permit ourselves. Behind Clare's head, in the central apse of the sanctuary that is the recessed ground of an icon two angels uphold a heavily bordered halo. Christ is present in Clare as he is present in the host. In the final glory of heaven, Clare has become what she has received. The dimensions of her personality are not changed, just as the wheaten nature of the host is not removed in the sacrifice of the Mass. God does not absorb and destroy what he possesses, he irradiates it with his real presence. He, Christ, possesses Clare, as he possessed the womb of his mother Mary without injury to her virginity - neither the physical virginity of her womb nor the created virginity of her personhood. God does not destroy what he has made. So it is Clare who is the monstrance of the radiant presence of God. Another Franciscan, born a few years after Clare's death, the poet Dante, uses the same image. In his encounter with his beloved, Beatrice, in the Earthly Paradise (Purgatorio, Canto XXX) he sees a great procession coming towards him, like a Blessed Sacrament procession. In it angels are strewing flowers, accompanied by the four living creatures, the twenty-four elders and personifications of the Virtues, in a real and living mystery play, like the enacted ones that accompanied the Blessed Sacrament in the Corpus Christi procession in England before the reformation. Riding on the great triumphal chariot which is greeted with cries of "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord", is the veiled figure of Beatrice. In the next canto, when she lifts back her veil, Dante sees Christ in her eyes. Later, much later, at the summit of Paradise, Dante is finally able to see God in his Triune infinite self. But he began by seeing him in a fellow creature who was a saint. For if you cannot love your neighbour whom you can see, how will you love God whom - as yet - you cannot see. That is the purpose of painting the icon of a saint, that you look into his or her eyes and see the reflection of God. The two flying angels who uphold Clare's halo emphasise this. They resemble the two angels found on either side of the host in the design of many early monstrances, including the one preserved in Assisi.   This is the central meaning of the icon. This is not a picture postcard from Assisi, it is an encounter with God; it is an invitation, as Saint Augustine said, to become what we are and be what we receive. We pray in the words that Clare's first biographer put into the mouths of the crowds who came running as they heard of her death:
Truly she was a saint. She now reigns gloriously with the angels, she who on earth has received such honour before men. Intercede for us with Christ, O first fruit of the Poor Ladies; you who have led countless souls to penitence and to life. Amen.