Friday, May 10, 2019

St Antoninus of Florence

The Dominican Order celebrates quite a few of its own Saints within a very short period in late April and early May. On the traditional calendar, St Agnes of Montepulciano is kept on April 20th, Peter Martyr on the 29th, Catherine of Siena on the 30th, Pope Pius V on May 5th, and St Antoninus of Florence on the 10th. In the OF, Peter Martyr has been moved to June 4th, the day of the translation of his relics; Catherine is on his old day, and Pius on hers, leaving the 5th vacant for St Vincent Ferrer. Antoninus, who was canonized in 1523, remains on his traditional day; he was added to the Roman general calendar in 1683, but removed from it in 1969.

The St Dominic Altarpiece, by Girolamo Romanino, 1545-8. The Saints standing in the lower part of the painting are the Apostle Paul, Thomas Aquinas, Peter Martyr, Dominic, Antoninus, Vincent Ferrer and the Apostle Peter; the two kneeling are Ss Faustinus and Jovita, the patron Saints of Brescia, where the painting was originally commissioned for the Dominican church, now destroyed. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons)
He was born in Florence in 1389, and christened “Antonio”, but because of his small stature, was always known by the diminutive form “Antonino”, even in the liturgical books. A famous story is told of how he was admitted into the Order. The prior of Santa Maria Novella, the Dominican house in Florence, was the Blessed John Dominici, one of the leading churchmen of his age, and particularly active in reviving the original spirit of austerity within the order’s Italian houses, which had very much fallen into laxity. Thinking to dissuade the fifteen-year old Antoninus, whom he deemed too frail for the rigors of religious life, he ordered him to wait, and come back when he had memorized the Decretals of Gratian, the canon law text book of the Middle Ages. A year later, the boy returned, having duly memorized the massive tome, and after answering several questions about it, was received with no further hesitation.

St Antoninus and Bl. John Dominici, by an anonymous Florentine artist, ca. 160-30, from the Dominican convent at Fiesole. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Sailko, CC BY 3.0)
In accordance with Bl. John’s plans, Antoninus was destined for the future founding of a reformed house at Fiesole; when the project was eventually realized, it would also count the Blessed Fra Angelico, who was a great friend of his, among its first members. He also knew at least three other Dominican Blesseds, Lawrence of Ripafratta, Constantius of Fabriano, and Peter Capucci.

The young friar was not only a brilliant scholar, as demonstrated by this episode, but also a natural leader, and within a short time of his priestly ordination, began to occupy one position of governance after another. He served as prior of several houses, including three of the largest, Santa Maria Novella, Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, and San Domenico Maggiore in Naples, bringing the reforming spirit to each of them. In 1436, he helped to found the second Dominican house in his native city, San Marco, together with Fra Angelico, many of whose works are still housed there to this day.

In addition to his work as a preacher and religious reformer, Antoninus was a great scholar of canon law, in an age which valued canonical process within the Church very highly indeed. As such, he was frequently consulted by the Popes; he is believed to have served on the Roman Rota, and by order of Pope Eugenius IV, attended the various sessions of the Ecumenical Council of Florence. In 1446, when the archbishop of his native city died, he was appointed to the office, very much against his will; like so many other saintly bishops (Gregory the Great, for example) he first attempted to hide, in his case, by fleeing to the island of Sardinia. Having been discovered, he pleaded to the Pope that he was too physically weak for the job, but Eugenius would not be put off, and finally forced him to accept episcopal consecration by threatening to excommunicate him for disobedience if he did not.


Proving the truth of the common maxim that power is best given to those who don’t want it, Antoninus was an exemplary bishop in every way, a father to the poor, and so well regarded for his prudence and wise judgment that he was popularly known as “Antoninus of Counsels.” The year after his appointment, he was summoned to Rome to administer the last Sacraments to the Pope, who died in his arms. Eugenius’ successor, Nicholas V, forbade any appeal to be made to Rome against his decisions; Pius II appointed him to a commission for the reform of the Roman courts, and the Florentine Republic made him one of its ambassadors on various occasions. (Pictured right - a statue of St Antoninus on the façade of Florence cathedral; image from Wikipedia by Sailko, CC BY 3.0)

Despite the endless cares which fall upon a man in his position, he was also assiduous in his prayer life, frequently celebrating Mass and preaching, reciting the full Divine Office (in an age when dispensations were easily granted to busy prelates), and often attending it in choir at the cathedral. He also found time to write an important treatise on moral theology, a widely-circulated manual for confessors, a chronicle of world history, and the biography of John Dominici. It was a common thing for prelates of wealthy sees (and Florence was very wealthy indeed) to keep a large stable for the travels of their retinues, but Antoninus had only one mule, which he sold several times to raise money for the poor; just as often, benefactors would buy it back and return it to him.

In the later part of his time as archbishop, Florence suffered from a series of disasters – a year-long outbreak of plague, followed by famine, and then, in 1453-55, a series of earthquakes. Through all of this, Antoninus was boundless in his charitable expenditures and his personal efforts to care for the victims, leading many others to do the same by his example. Cosimo de’ Medici, who had contributed a good deal of the money to found San Marco, said of him “Our city has experienced all sorts of misfortunes: fire, earthquake, drought, plague, seditions, plots. I believe it would today be nothing but a mass of ruins without the prayers of our holy archbishop.”

The Alms of St Antoninus, by Lorenzo Lotto, 1542; from the Dominican church in Venice, Ss John and Paul. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
Antoninus died on May 2 of 1455, and his funeral was attended by Pope Pius II in person. He was canonized by Pope Adrian VI (1522-23) as a model reformer in an age very much in need of reform, a fact which Adrian was the first Pope to really grasp. (He might well have achieved on a larger scale within the Church some of what Antoninus achieved within his order and city, had he not died less than two years into his reign, the last non-Italian Pope before John Paul II). In 1559, his body was discovered to be incorrupt, and translated to the chapel where it still rests in the church of San Marco in Florence.

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