“St. Francis ‘Neath the Bitter Tree” by William McNichols

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, embracing poverty and praying for peace, but few know about his love for another man and his gender nonconformity. His feast day is Oct. 4.

Francis is “a uniquely gender-bending historic figure” according to Franciscan scholar Kevin Elphick. His extravagant love crossed boundaries. 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. Francis allowed a widow to enter the male-only cloister, naming her “Brother Jacoba.” 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.

Pope Francis took him as his namesake in 2013, explaining that “Francis was a man of peace, a man of poverty, a man who loved and protected creation.”

Francis dearly loved his male companion

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. Elphick has spent years researching the queer side of Saint Francis, including travel to his hometown of Assisi. There he photographed artwork depicting the man he believes may have been the saint’s beloved soulmate: Brother Elias of Cortona.

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

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?

Early evidence of the various 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.


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)

“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 a rare and hard-to-find image: “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 renounced his wealth as a young manFrancis was born to a wealthy family in 1181 or 1182 in the Italian town of Assisi. 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. Animal blessing events are happening all over the world in October for the Feast of St. Francis, the patron saint of animals. Click here for animal blessing prayer by Q Spirit founder Kittredge Cherry.

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.

“Saint Francis Embracing Christ” by Francisco Ribalta

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

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, Christ responds to St. Francis’ ecstatic kiss by giving the saint his crown of thorns, the symbol of suffering that leads to divine union.

Francis embraced a Muslim sultan

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.

Saint Francis and the Sultan by Robert Lentz

“St. Francis and the Sultan” by Robert Lentz

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.

Their meeting is celebrated as a model of interfaith dialogue in the icon “St. Francis and the Sultan” by Robert Lentz, a Franciscan friar known for his innovative and LGBTQ-positive icons. He is stationed at Holy Name College in Silver Spring, Maryland. Lentz discussed the icon in a video.

Francis received the stigmata

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.

“St Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata”
by Kevin Raye Larson © 1991

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)

Links related to Francis of Assisi

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

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Top image credit:
“St. Francis ‘Neath the Bitter Tree” by William Hart McNichols ©

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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.

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Kittredge Cherry

Founder at Q Spirit
Kittredge Cherry is a lesbian Christian author who writes regularly about LGBTQ spirituality.She holds degrees in religion, journalism and art history.She was ordained by Metropolitan Community Churches and served as its national ecumenical officer, advocating for LGBTQ rights at the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches.
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