Lady Jacoba de Settesoli

…Saint Francis called her “Brother Jacoba”…

Each year, on the 3rd of October, when we celebrate the death of Saint Francis of Assisi in what is called the Transitus ceremony, we hear the story about how Lady Jacoba de Settesoli arrived in Assisi just in time to fulfil the wishes of the dying saint.

In his very last days, suffering greatly, he asked the friars to send for her, telling them to write and ask specifically for “a burial shroud, some candles and some of those sweet almond biscuits that she always made for him when he came to Rome”. But before they could even do so Lady Jacoba, already warned by divine inspiration of his imminent death, arrived at the friary of the Portiuncula in the valley down below the Town of Assisi. Even more surprisingly she had not only brought with her the sweet almond biscuits he had asked for, but also the candles and a new habit she made for him from the undyed wool of a sheep that he had previously given to her as a pet.

However, immediately there was a crisis. Francis was far too ill to come out to see her, his health too fragile even to move him and the strict rule of enclosure imposed on religious made it impossible for a woman to enter the friary. The friars in complete surprise at her arrival and in confusion about letting her into the friary came to ask Saint Francis what they were to do in this situation. Saint Francis with his joyful sense of fraternity said to them, “Let her come in immediately; the rule of cloister does not apply to ‘Brother’ Jacoba!” So Brother Jacoba came in and was present when Saint Francis died and he was buried in the habit she brought to him. Such is role that Lady Jacoba plays in the Transitus of Saint Francis each year. But this is only the beginning of her story.

The picture we chose for Lady Jacoba de Settesoli is by the medieval artist Simone Martini. It is a fresco from the Lower Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi. For many years it has been claimed that it represents Saint Clare, but in recent years there are those who think it is actually Lady Jacoba de Settesoli, because there are seven suns in her halo – sette soli. Saint Clare is normally shown in a religious habit, including other works by Simone Martini in the Basilica. For this reason the picture is chosen here for Lady Jacoba de Settesoli. The artist, Simone Martini, was born in 1284 and lived to 1344 so he would not have met Lady Jacoba de Settesoli or Saint Clare. At the beginning of the Renaissance he was an important artist, who moved art away from an iconographic style towards something more fluid and realistic.

According to Thomas of Celano, Saint Francis once said to one of the friars, “I tell you the truth, dearest brother, I would not recognise any woman if I looked into her face, except two.” It is a mysterious statement of Saint Francis. Exactly who the two women were we are not told. It has left authors guessing for centuries and most have decided that these two women were Saint Clare of Assisi and Lady Jacoba de Settesoli.

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