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Bill Thayer

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To Commemorate a Miracle

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Built in 1518 in the style of Bramante — who had just died — and rebuilt after an earthquake in 1672, this shrine stands on the spot where, in 1227, St. Anthony of Padua worked a celebrated Eucharistic miracle. Here, in the main square of town, probably on a busy market day, the saint was disputing with a group of people who denied that the host in the Mass was the real Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.

Now St. Anthony seems to have been a man with a sense of humor. I'm stretching what I read on a little plaque inside this church, but after a fair amount of arguing himself, he apparently looked at his fractious, argumentative opponents and said "You guys are as stubborn as mules! Even stubborner: look! (and in the best spirit of his newly established Franciscan order, turning to a passing mule) Brother Mule, bow down to the Lord who made you!" And the startled mulea did as he was told.

Franciscans and Dominicans both spread the gospel and fought heresy. The intellectual Dominican method rather quickly degenerated into fire and sword in southern France, and eventually the Spanish Inquisition; the Franciscan method, of which this charming tale is a perfect example, appealed to the emotions, according to many witnesses even to those of beasts.b

For a more dramatic Eucharistic miracle of roughly the same period (1263) one needs to go to Bolsena, where, in the hands of a priest with doubts about transsubstantiation, a host started to bleed.c While that miracle gave us the great cathedral of Orvieto, built with the full power of the Papacy behind it, this tiny building is as Franciscan as its inspiration: it can hold no more than six people comfortably.

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Spiritual cousin:
the cathedral
of Orvieto.

Architectural cousin:
Tempio della Consolazione
in Todi.

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[image ALT: Rimini, Chapel of S. Antonio di Padova, interior: against a simple painted wall, a table serving as an altar, with above it a plaster statue of St. Anthony. Further up the wall up to the ceiling, flaky patches of worn and mostly undecipherable fresco.]
[image ALT: A patch of fresco about 20 centimeters on a side depicting the head of a rather androgynous young man with a halo, and the collar of a Franciscan robe, then a ragged edge; the rest has been lost. He is St. Anthony of Padua, and the fragment of fresco is in the Chapel of S. Antonio di Padova in Rimini.]

By good fortune, the head of the saint and some of his brown Franciscan habit are among the bits of fresco that have survived (arrow in the left photo). At the time of his meeting with the malleable mule, St. Anthony was 32 years old. He would die four years later. (1195‑1231. Patron saint of donkeys. Yes, really!)

Thayer's Notes, as unobtrusive as I can make them:

a Gosh, why spoil a good story. Still, the truth is the truth, and saint and mule may have an altogether different relationship. See this page on a site devoted to the saint, with some added information and a photograph of Donatello's rendering of the scene on the altar in the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua; although no source, so remember, it may be no truer than my little novel. There is also a column somehow involved with the story; it's inside the chapel.

For a charming artist's impression of this story, in a rather conjugal variant (a 14c fresco with two mules), see this page.

The story is appealing, and likely to get repeated; and so it was, in the 16c, by Bartolomeo Pisani . . . of St. Francis (and, for variety, a donkey: Conformitates S. Francisci, Milan, 1510: as quoted by Tommaso Valenti in Curiosità storiche trevane, p134). A related tale is told of St. Dominic and a horse.

b For an amusing if unsympathetic example of how this was interpreted in the popular mind — involving St. Dominic and not a mule, but, close enough, a horse, see George Dennis's retelling of a legend of northern Lazio. Much the same story — a donkey this time — is told of St. Francis.

c And then again, maybe not. The non-Christian explanation of the miracle is that a common bacterium, Serratia marcescens, is the source of it: it feeds on starch and left to grow, forms liquid colonies of a blood-red color: for a quick summary, see Digital Learning Center for Microbial Ecology.

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Page updated: 30 Oct 17