Catholic Encyclopedia – Saint Bonaventure

[Saint Bonaventure]Article

Doctor of the Church, Cardinal-Bishop of Albano, Minister General of the Friars Minor, born at Bagnorea in the vicinity of Viterbo in 1221; died at Lyons, 16 July, 1274.

Nothing is known of Bonaventure’s parents save their names: Giovanni di Fidanza and Maria Ritella. How his baptismal name of John came to be changed to that of Bonaventure is not clear. An attempt has been made to trace the latter name to the exclamation of Saint Francis, O buona ventura, when Bonaventure was brought as an infant to him to be cured of a dangerous illness. This derivation is highly improbable; it seems based on a late fifteenth-century legend. Bonaventure himself tells us that while yet a child he was preserved from death through the intercession of Saint Francis, but there is no evidence that this cure took place during the lifetime of Saint Francis or that the name Bonaventure originated in any prophetical words of Saint Francis. It was certainly borne by others before the Seraphic Doctor. No details of Bonaventure’s youth have been preserved. He entered the Order of Friars Minor in 1238 or 1243; the exact year is uncertain. Wadding and the Bollandists bold for the later date, but the earlier one is supported by Sbaradea, Bonelli, Panfilo da Magliano, and Jeiler, and appears more probable. It is certain that Bonaventure was sent from the Roman Province, to which he belonged, to complete his studies at the University of Paris under Alexander of Hales, the great founder of the Franciscan School. The latter died in 1246, according to the opinion generally received, though not yet definitely established, and Bonaventure seems to have become his pupil about 1242. Be this as it may, Bonaventure received in 1248 the “licentiate” which gave him the right to teach publicly as Magister regens, and he continued to lecture at the university with great success until 1256, when he was compelled to discontinue, owing to the then violent outburst of opposition to the Mendicant orders on the part of the secular professors at the university. The latter, jealous, as it seems, of the academic successes of the Dominicans and Franciscans, sought to exclude them from teaching publicly. The smouldering elements of discord had been fanned into a flame in 1265, when Guillaume de Saint-Amour published a work entitled “The Perils of the Last Times”, in which he attacked the Friars with great bitterness. It was in connexion with this dispute that Bonaventure wrote his treatise, “De paupertate Christi”. It was not, however, Bonaventure, as some have erroneously stated, but Blessed John of Parma, who appeared before Alexander IV at Anagni to defend the Franciscans against their adversary. The Holy See having, as is well known, re-established the Mendicants in all their privileges, and Saint-Amour’s book having been formally condemned, the degree of Doctor was solemnly bestowed on Saint Bonaventure and Saint Thomas Aquinas at the university, 23 October, 1267.

In the meantime Bonaventure, though not yet thirty-six years old, had on 2 February, 1257, been elected Minister General of the Friars Minor — an office of peculiar difficulty, owing to the fact that the order was distracted by internal dissensions between the two factions among the Friars designated respectively the Spirituales and the Relaxati. The former insisted upon the literal observance of the original Rule, especially in regard to poverty, while the latter wished to introduce innovations and mitigations. This lamentable controversy had moreover been aggravated by the enthusiasm with which many of the “Spiritual” Friars had adopted the doctrines connected with the name of Abbot Joachim of Floris and set forth in the so-called “Evangelium aeternum”. The introduction to this pernicious book, which proclaimed the approaching dispensation of the Spirit that was to replace the Law of Christ, was falsely attributed to Blessed John of Parma, who in 1267 had retired from the government of the order in favour of Bonaventure. The new general lost no time in striking vigorously at both extremes within the order. On the one hand, he proceeded against several of the Joachimite “Spirituals” as heretics before an ecclesiastical tribunal at Città della Pieve; two of their leaders were condemned to perpetual imprisonment, and John of Parma was only saved from a like fate through the personal intervention of Cardinal Ottoboni, afterwards Adrian V. On the other hand, Bonaventure had, in an encyclical letter issued immediately after his election, outlined a programme for the reformation of the Re1axati. These reforms he sought to enforce three years later at the General Chapter of Narbonne when the constitutions of the order which he had revised were promulgated anew. These so-called “Constitutiones Narbonenses” are distributed under twelve heads, corresponding to the twelve chapters of the Rule, of which they form an enlightened and prudent exposition, and are of capital importance in the history of Franciscan legislation. The chapter which issued this code of laws requested Bonaventure to write a “legend” or life of Saint Francis which should supersede those then in circulation. This was in 1260. Three years later Bonaventure, having in the meantime visited a great part of the order, and having assisted at the dedication of the chapel on La Verna and at the translation of the remains of Saint Clare and of Saint Anthony, convoked a general chapter of the order of Pisa at which his newly composed life of Saint Francis was officially approved as the standard biography of the saint to the exclusion of all others. At this chapter of 1263, Bonaventure fixed the limits of the different provinces of the order and, among other ordinances, prescribed that at nightfall a bell should be rung in honour of the Annunciation, a pious practice from which the Angelus seems to have originated. There are no grounds, however, for the assertion that Bonaventure in this chapter prescribed the celebration of the feast of the Immaculate Conception in the order. In 1264, at the earnest request of Cardinal Cajetan, Bonaventure consented to resume the direction of the Poor Clares which the Chapter of Pisa had entirely renounced the year before. He required the Clares, however, to acknowledge occasionally in writing that the favours tendered them by the Friars were voluntary acts of charity not arising from any obligation whatsoever. It is said that Pope Urban IV acted at Bonaventure’s suggestion in attempting to establish uniformity of observance throughout all the monasteries of Clares. About this time (1264) Bonaventure founded at Rome the Society of the Gonfalone in honour of the Blessed Virgin which, if not the first confraternity instituted in the Church, as some have claimed, was certainly one of the earliest. In 1265 Clement IV, by a Bull dated 23 November, nominated Bonaventure to the vacant Archbishopric of York, but the saint, in keeping with his singular humility, steadfastly refused this honour and the pope yielded.

In 1266 Bonaventure convened a general chapter in Paris at which, besides other enactments, it was decreed that all the “legends” of Saint Francis written before that of Bonaventure should be forthwith destroyed, just as the Chapter of Narbonne had in 1260 ordered the destruction of all constitutions before those then enacted. This decree has excited much hostile criticism. Some would fain see in it a deliberate attempt on Bonaventure’s part to close the primitive sources of Franciscan history, to suppress the real Francis, and substitute a counterfeit in his stead. Others, however, regard the decree in question as a purely liturgical ordinance intended to secure uniformity in the choir “legends”. Between these two conflicting opinions the truth seems to be that this edict was nothing more than another heroic attempt to wipe out the old quarrels and start afresh. One cannot but regret the circumstances of this decree, but when it is recalled that the appeal of the contending parties was ever to the words and actions of Saint Francis as recorded in the earlier “legends”, it would be unjust to accuse the chapter of “literary vandalism” in seeking to proscribe the latter. We have no details of Bonaventure’s life between 1266 and 1269. In the latter year he convoked his fourth general chapter at Assisi, in which it was enacted that a Mass be sung every Saturday throughout the order in honour of the Blessed Virgin, not, however, in honour of her Immaculate Conception as Wadding among others has erroneously stated. It was probably soon after this chapter that Bonaventure composed his “Apologia pauperum”, in which he silences Gerard of Abbeville who by means of an anonymous libel had revived the old university feud against the Friars. Two years later, Bonaventure was mainly instrumental in reconciling the differences among the cardinals assembled at Viterbo to elect a successor to Clement IV, who had died nearly three years before; it was on Bonaventure’s advice that, 1 September, 1271, they unanimously chose Theobald Visconti of Piacenza who took the title of Gregory X. That the cardinals seriously authorized Bonaventure to nominate himself, as some writers aver, is most improbable. Nor is there any truth in the popular story that Bonaventure on arriving at Viterbo advised the citizens to lock up the cardinals with a view to hastening the election. In 1272 Bonaventure for the second time convened a general chapter at Pisa in which, apart from general enactments to further regular observances new decrees were issued respecting the direction of the Poor Clares, and a solemn anniversary was instituted on 25 August in memory of Saint Louis. This was the first step towards the canonization of the holy king, who had been a special friend of Bonaventure, and at whose request Bonaventure composed his “Office of the Passion”. On 23 June, 1273, Bonaventure, much against his will, was created Cardinal-Bishop of Albano, by Gregory X. It is said that the pope’s envoys who brought him the cardinal’s hat found the saint washing dishes outside a convent near Florence and were requested by him to hang it on a tree nearby until his hands were free to take it. Bonaventure continued to govern the Order of Friars Minor until 20 May 1274, when at the General Chapter of Lyons, Jerome of Ascoli, afterwards Nicholas IV, was elected to succeed him. Meanwhile Bonaventure had been charged by Gregory X to prepare the questions to be discussed at the Fourteenth Oecumenical Council, which opened at Lyons 7 May 1274.

The pope himself presided at the council, but he confided the direction of its deliberations to Bonaventure, especially charging him to confer with the Greeks on the points relating to the abjuration of their schism. It was largely due to Bonaventure’s efforts and to those of the Friars whom he had sent to Constantinople, that the Greeks accepted the union effected 6 July, 1274. Bonaventure twice addressed the assembled Fathers, on 18 May, during a session of the Council, when he preached on Baruch 5:5, and on 29 June, during pontifical Mass celebrated by the pope. While the council was still in session, Bonaventure died, Sunday, 15 July, 1274. The exact cause of his death is unknown, but if we may credit the chronicle of Peregrinus of Bologna, Bonaventure’s secretary, which has recently (1905) been recovered and edited, the saint was poisoned. He was buried on the evening following his death in the church of the Friars Minor at Lyons, being honoured with a splendid funeral which was attended by the pope, the King of Aragon, the cardinals, and the other members of the council. The funeral oration was delivered by Pietro di Tarantasia, O.P., Cardinal-Bishop of Ostia, afterwards Innocent V, and on the following day during the fifth session of the council, Gregory X spoke of the irreparable loss the Church had sustained by the death of Bonaventure, and commanded all prelates and priests throughout the whole world to celebrate Mass for the repose of his soul.

Bonaventure enjoyed especial veneration even during his lifetime because of his stainless character and of the miracles attributed to him. It was Alexander of Hales who said that Bonaventure seemed to have escaped the curse of Adam’s sin. And the story of Saint Thomas visiting Bonaventure’s cell while the latter was writing the life of Saint Francis and finding him in an ecstasy is well known. “Let us leave a saint to work for a saint”, said the Angelic Doctor as he withdrew. When, in 1434, Bonaventure’s remains were translated to the new church erected at Lyons in honour of Saint Francis, his head was found in a perfect state of preservation, the tongue being as red as in life. This miracle not only moved the people of Lyons to choose Bonaventure as their special patron, but also gave a great impetus to the process of his canonization. Dante, writing long before, had given expression to the popular mind by placing Bonaventure among the saints in his “Paradiso”, and no canonization was ever more ardently or universally desired than that of Bonaventure. That its inception was so long delayed was mainly due to the deplorable dissensions within the order after Bonaventure’s death. Finally on 14 April, 1482, Bonaventure was enrolled in the catalogue of the saints by Sixtus IV. In 1562 Bonaventure’s shrine was plundered by the Huguenots and the urn containing his body was burned in the public square. His head was preserved through the heroism of the superior, who hid it at the cost of his life but it disappeared during the French Revolution and every effort to discover it has been in vain. Bonaventure was inscribed among the principal Doctors of the Church by Sixtus V, 14 March, 1557. His feast is celebrated 14 July.

Bonaventure, as Hefele remarks, united in himself the two elements whence proceed whatever was noble and sublime, great and beautiful, in the Middle Ages, viz., tender piety and profound learning. These two qualities shine forth conspicuously in his writings. Bonaventure wrote on almost every subject treated by the Schoolmen, and his writings are very numerous. The greater number of them deal with philosophy and theology. No work of Bonaventure’s is exclusively philosophical, but in his “Commentary on the Sentences”, his “Breviloquium”, his “Itinerarium Mentis in Deum” and his “De reductione Artium ad Theologiam”, he deals with the most important and difficult questions of philosophy in such a way that these four works taken together contain the elements of a complete system of philosophy, and at the same time bear striking witness to the mutual interpenetration of philosophy and theology which is a distinguishing mark of the Scholastic period. The Commentary on the “Sentences” remains without doubt Bonaventure’s greatest work; all his other wntings are in some way subservient to it. It was written, superiorum praecepto (at the command of his superiors) when he was only twenty-seven and is a theological achievement of the first rank. It comprises more than four thousand pages in folio and treats extensively and profoundly of God and the Trinity, the Creation and Fall of Man, the Incarnation and Redemption, Grace, the Sacraments, and the Last Judgment, that is to say, traverses the entire field of Scholastic theology. Like the other medieval Summas, Bonaventure’s “Commentary” is divided into four books. In the first, second, and fourth Bonaventure can compete favourably with the best commentaries on the Sentences, but it is admitted that in the third book he surpasses all others. The “Breviloquium”, written before 1257, is, as its name implies, a shorter work. It is to some extent a summary of the “Commentary” containing as Scheeben says, the quintessence of the theology of the time, and is the most sublime compendium of dogma in our possession. It is perhaps the work which will best give a popular notion of Bonaventure’s theology; in it his powers are seen at their best. Whilst the “Breviloquium” derives all things from God, the “Itinerarium Mentis in Deum” proceeds in the opposite direction, bringing all things back to their Supreme End. The latter work, which formed the delight of Gerson for more than thirty years, and from which Blessed Henry Suso drew so largely, was written on Mount la Verna in 1259. The relation of the finite and infinite, the natural and supernatural, is again dealt with by Bonaventure, in his “De reductione Artium ad Theologiam”, a little work written to demonstrate the relation which philosophy and the arts bear to theology, and to prove that they are all absorbed in it as into a natural centre. It must not be inferred, however, that philosophy in Bonaventure’s view does not possess an existence of its own. The passages in Bonaventure’s works on which such an opinion might be founded only go to prove that he did not regard philosophy as the chief or last end of scientific research and speculation. Moreover, it is only when compared with theology that he considers philosophy of an inferior order. Considered in itself, philosophy is, according to Bonaventure, a true science, prior in point of time to theology. Again, Bonaventure’s pre-eminence as a mystic must not he suffered to overshadow his labours in the domain of philosophy, for he was undoubtedly one of the greatest philosophers of the Middle Ages.

Bonaventure’s philosophy, no less than his theology, manifests his profound respect for tradition. He regarded new opinions with disfavour and ever strove to follow those generally received in his time. Thus, between the two great influences which determined the trend of Scholasticism about the middle of the thirteenth century, there can he no doubt that Bonaventure ever remained a faithful disciple of Augustine and always defended the teaching of that Doctor; yet he by no means repudiated the teaching of Aristotle. While basing his doctrine on that of the old school, Bonaventure borrowed not a little from the new. Though he severely criticized the defects of Aristotle, he is said to have quoted more frequently from the latter than any former Scholastic had done. Perhaps he inclined more, on the whole, to some general views of Plato than to those of Aristotle, but he cannot therefore be called a Platonist. Although he adopted the hylomorphic theory of matter and form, Bonaventure, following Alexander of Hales, whose Summa he appears to have had before him in composing his own works, does not limit matter to corporeal beings, but holds that one and the same kind of matter is the substratum of spiritual and corporeal beings alike. According to Bonaventure, materia prima is not a mere indeterminatum quid, but contains the rationes seminales infused by the Creator at the beginning, and tends towards the acquisition of those special forms which it ultimately assumes. The substantial form is not in Bonaventure’s opinion, essentially, one, as Saint Thomas taught. Another point in which Bonaventure, as representing the Franciscan school, is at variance with Saint Thomas is that which concerns the possibility of creation from eternity. He declares that reason can demonstrate that the world was not created ab aeterno. In his system of ideology Bonaventure does not favour either the doctrine of Plato or that of the Ontologists. It is only by completely misunderstanding Bonaventure’s teaching that any ontologistic interpretation can he read into it. For he is most emphatic in rejecting any direct or immediate vision of God or of His Divine attributes in this life. For the rest, the psychology of Bonaventure differs in no essential point from the common teaching of the Schoolmen. The same is true, as a whole, of his theology.

Bonaventure’s theological writings may be classed under four heads: dogmatic, mystic, exegetical, and homiletic. His dogmatic teaching is found chiefly in his “Commentary on the Sentences” and in his “Breviloquium”. Treating of the Incarnation, Bonaventure does not differ substantially from Saint Thomas. In answer to the question: “Would the Incarnation have taken place if Adam had not sinned?”, he answers in the negative. Again, notwithstanding his deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin, he favours the opinion which does not exempt her from original sin, quia magis consonat fidei pietati et sanctorum auctoritati. But Bonaventure’s treament of this question marked a distinct advance, and he did more perhaps than anyone before Scotus to clear the ground for its correct presentation. His treatise on the sacraments is largely practical and is characterized by a distinctly devotional element. This appears especially in is treatment of the Holy Eucharist. He rejects the doctrine of physical, and admits only a moral, efficacy in the sacraments. It is much to be regretted that Bonaventure’s views on this and other controverted questions should be so often misrepresented, even by recent writers. For example, at, least three of the latest and best known manuals of dogma in treating of such questions as “De angelorum natura”, “De scientia Christi”, “De natura distinctionis inter caritatem et gratiam sanctificantem”, “De causalitate sacramentorum”, “De statu parvulorum sine baptismo morientium”, gratuitously attribute opinions to Bonaventure which are entirely at variance with his real teaching. To be sure Bonaventure, like all the Scholastics, occasionally put forward opinions not strictly correct in regard to questions not yet defined or clearly settled, but even here his teaching represents the most profound and acceptable ideas of his age and marks a notable stage in the evolution of knowledge. Bonaventure’s authority has always been very great in the Church. Apart from his personal influence at Lyons (1274), his writings carried great weight at the subsequent councils at Vienna (1311), Constance (1417), Basle (1435), and Florence (1438). At Trent (1546) his writings, as Newman remarks (Apologia, ch. v) had a critical effect on some of the definitions of dogma, and at the Vatican Council (1870), sentences from them were embodied in the decrees concerning papal supremacy and infallibility.

Only a small part of Bonaventure’s writings is properly mystical. These are characterized by brevity and by a faithful adherence to the teaching of the Gospel. The perfecting of the soul by the uprooting of vice and the implanting of virtue is his chief concern. There is a degree of prayer in which ecstasy occurs. When it is attained, God is sincerely to be thanked. It must, however, be regarded only as incidental. It is by no means essential to the possession of perfection in the highest degree. Such is the general outline of Bonaventure’s mysticism which is largely a continuation and development of what the Saint Victors had already laid down. The shortest and most complete summary of it is found in his “De Triplici Via”, often erroneously entitled the “Incendium Amoris”, in which he distinguishes the different stages or degrees of perfect charity. What the “Breviloquium” is to Scholasticism, the “De Triplici Via” is to mysticism: a perfect compendium of all that is best in it. Savonarola made a pious and learned commentary upon it. Perhaps the best known of Bonaventure’s other mystical and ascetical writings are the “Soliloquium”, a sort of dialogue containing a rich collection of passages from the Fathers on spiritual questions; the “Lignum vitae”, a series of forty-eight devout meditations on the life of Christ, the “De sex alis seraphim”, a precious opuscule on the virtues of superiors, which Father Claudius Acquaviva caused to be printed separately and circulated throughout the Society of Jesus; the “Vitis mystica”, a work on the Passion, which was for a long time erroneously ascribed to Saint Bernard, and “De Perfectione vitae”, a treatise which depicts the virtues that make for religious perfection, and which appears to have been written for the use of Blessed Isabella of France, who had founded a monastery of Poor Clares at Longchamps.

Bonaventure’s exegetical works were highly esteemed in the Middle Ages and still remain a treasure house of thoughts and treatises. They include commentaries on the Books of Ecclesiastes and Wisdom and on the Gospels of Saint Luke and Saint John. In addition to his commentary on the Fourth Gospel, Bonaventure composed “Collationes in Joannem”, ninety-one conferences on subjects relating to it. His “Collationes in Hexameron” is a work of the same kind, but its title, which did not originate with Bonaventure, is somewhat misleading. It consists of an unfinished course of instructions delivered at Paris in 1273. Bonaventure did not intend in these twenty-one discourses to explain the work of the six days, but rather to draw some analogous instructions from the first chapter of Genesis, as a warning to his auditors against some errors of the day. It is an exaggeration to say that Bonaventure had regard only to the mystical sense of Scripture. In such of his writings as are properly exegetical he follows the text, though he also develops the practical conclusions deduced from it, for in the composition of these works he had the advantage of the preacher mainly in view. Bonaventure had conceived the most sublime idea of the ministry of preaching, and notwithstanding his manifold labours in other fields, this ministry ever held an especial place among his labours. He neglected no opportunity of preaching, whether to the clergy, the people, or his own Friars, and Blessed Francis of Fabriano (died 1322), his contemporary and auditor, bears witness that Bonaventure’s renown as a preacher almost surpassed his fame as a teacher. He preached before popes and kings, in Spain and Germany, as well as in France and Italy. Nearly five hundred authentic sermons of Bonaventure have come down to us; the greater part of them were delivered in Paris before the university while Bonaventure was professor there, or after he had become minister general. Most of them were taken down by some of his auditors and thus preserved to posterity. In his sermons he follows the Scholastic method of putting forth the divisions of his subject and then expounding each division according to the different senses.

Besides his philosophical and theological writings, Bonaventure left a number of works referring to the religious life, but more especially to the Franciscan Order. Among the latter is his well-known explanation of the Rule of the Friars Minor; in this work, written at a time when the dissensions vithin the order as to the observance of the Rule were so painfully marked, he adopted a conciliatory attitude, approving neither the interpretation of the Zelanti nor that of the Relaxati. His aim was to promote harmony in essentials. With this end in view, he had chosen a middle course at the outset and firmly adhered to it during the seventeen years of his generalship. If anyone could have succeeded in uniting the order, it would have been Bonaventure; but the via media proved impracticable, and Bonaventure’s personality only served to hold in check the elements of discord, subsequently represented by the Conventuals and the Fraticelli. Following upon his explanation of the Rule comes Bonaventure’s important treatise embodying the Constitutions of Narbonne already referred to. There is also an answer by Bonaventure to some questions concerning the Rule, a treatise on the guidance of novices, and an opuscule in which Bonaventure states why the Friars Minor preach and hear confessions, besides a number of letters which give us a special insight into the saint’s character. These include official letters written by Bonaventure as general to the superiors of the order, as well as personal letters addressed like that “Ad innominatum magistrum” to private individuals. Bonaventure’s beautiful “Legend” or life of Saint Francis completes the writings in which he strove to promote the spiritual welfare of his brethren. This well-known work is composed of two parts of very unequal value. In the first Bonaventure publishes the unedited facts that he had been able to gather at Assisi and elsewhere; in the other he merely abridges and repeats what others, and especially Celano, had already recorded. As a whole, it is essentially a legenda pacis, compiled mainly with a view to pacifying the unhappy discord still ravaging the order. Saint Bonaventure’s aim was to present a general portrait of the holy founder which, by the omission of certain points that had given rise to controversy, should be acceptable to all parties. This aim was surely legitimate even though from a critical standpoint the work may not be a perfect biography. Of this “Legenda Major”, as it came to be called, Bonaventure made an abridgment arranged for use in choir and known as the “Legenda Minor”.

Bonaventure was the true heir and follower of Alexander of Hales and the continuator of the old Franciscan school founded by the Doctor Irrefragabilis, but he surpassed the latter in acumen, fertility of imagination, and originality of expression. His proper place is heside his friend Saint Thomas, as they are the two greatest theologians of Scholasticism. If it be true that the system of Saint Thomas is more finished than that of Bonaventure, it should be borne in mind that, whereas Thomas was free to give himself to study to the end of his days, Bonaventure had not yet received the Doctor’s degree when he was called to govern his order and overwhelmed with multifarious cares in consequence. The heavy responsibilities which he bore till within a few weeks of his death were almost incompatible with further study and even precluded his completing what he had begun before his thirty-sixth year. Again, in attempting to make a comparison between Bonaventure and Saint Thomas, we should remember that the two saints were of a different bent of mind; each had qualities in which he excelled; one was in a sense the complement of the other; one supplied what the other lacked. Thus Thomas was analytical, Bonaventure synthetical; Thomas was the Christian Aristotle, Bonaventure the true disciple of Augustine; Thomas was the teacher of the schools, Bonaventure of practical life; Thomas enlightened the mind, Bonaventure inflamed the heart; Thomas extended the Kingdom of God by the love of theology, Bonaventure by the theology of love. Even those who hold that Bonaventure does not reach the level of Saint Thomas in the sphere of Scholastic speculation concede that as a mystic he far surpasses the Angelic Doctor. In this particular realm of thelogy, Bonaventure equals, if he does not excel, Saint Bernard himself. Leo XIII rightly calls Bonaventure the Prince of Mystics: “Having scaled the difficult heights of speculation in a most notable manner, he treated of mystical theology with such perfection that in the common opinion of the learned he is facile princeps in that field.” (Allocutio of 11 October, 1890.) It must not be concluded, however, that Bonaventure’s mystical writings constitute his chief title to fame. This conclusion, in so far as it seems to imply a deprecation of his labours in the field of Scholasticism, is opposed to the explicit utterances of several pontiffs and eminent scholars, is incompatible with Bonaventure’s acknowledged reputation in the Schools, and is excluded by an intelligent perusal of his works. As a matter of fact, the half of one volume of the ten comprising the Quaracchi edition suffices to contain Bonaventure’s ascetic and mystic writings. Although Bonaventure’s mystical works alone would suffice to place him in the foremost rank, yet he may justly be called a mystic rather than a Scholastic only in so far as every subject he treats of is made ultimately to converge upon God. This abiding sense of God’s presence which pervades all the writings of Bonaventure is perhaps their fundamental attribute. To it we may trace that all-pervading unction which is their peculiar characteristic. As Sixtus V aptly expresses it: “In writing he united to the highest erudition an equal amount of the most ardent piety; so that whilst enlightening his readers he also touched their hearts penetrating to the inmost recesses of their souls” (Bull, Triumphantis Jerusalem). Saint Antoninus, Denis the Carthusian, Louis of Granada, and Father Claude de la Colombière, among others, have also noted this feature of Bonaventure’s writings. Invariably he aims at arousing devotion as well as imparting knowledge. He never divorces the one from the other, but treats learned subjects devoutly and devout subjects learnedly. Bonaventure, however, never sacrifices truth to devotion, but his tendency to prefer an opinion which arouses devotion to a dry and uncertain speculation may go far towards explaining not a little of the widespread popularity his writings enjoyed among his contemporaries and all succeeding ages. Again Bonaventure is distinguished from the other Scholastics not only by the greater warmth of his religious teaching, but also by its practical tendency as Trithemius notes (Scriptores Eccles.). Many purely speculative questions are passed over by Bonaventure; there is a directness about all he has written. No useful purpose, he declares, is achieved by mere controversy. He is ever tolerant and modest. Thus while he himself accepts the literal interpretations of the first chapter of Genesis, Bonaventure acknowledges the admissibility of a different one and refers with admiration to the figurative explanation propounded by Saint Augustine. He never condemns the opinions of others and emphatically disclaims anything like finality for his own views. Indeed he asserts the littleness of his authority, renounces all claims to originality and calls himself a “poor compiler”. No doubt Bonaventure’s works betray some of the defects of the learning of his day, but there is nothing in them that savours of useless subtlety. “One does not find in his pages”, notes Gerson (De Examin. Doctrin.) “vain trifles or useless cavils, nor does he mix as do so many others, worldly digressions with serious theological discussions. “This”, he adds, “is the reason why Saint Bonaventure has been abandoned by those Scholastics who are devoid of piety, of whom the number is alas! but too large”. It has been said that Bonaventure’s mystical spirit unfitted him for subtle analysis. Be this as it may, one of the greatest charms of Bonaventure’s writings is their simple clearness. Though he had necessarily to make use of the Scholastic method, he rose above dialectics, and though his argumentation may at times seem too cumbersome to find approval in our time, yet he writes with an ease and grace of style which one seeks in vain among the other Schoolmen. To the minds of his contemporaries impregnated with the mysticism of the Middle Ages, the spirit that breathed in Bonaventure’s writings seemed to find its parallel only in the lives of those that stand nearest to the Throne, and the title of “Seraphic Doctor” bestowed upon Bonaventure is an undeniable tribute to his all-absorbing love for God. This title seems to have been first given to him in 1333 in the Prologue of the “Pantheologia” by Raynor of Pisa, O.P. He had already received while teaching in Paris the name of Doctor Devotus.

The Franciscan Order has ever regarded Bonaventure as one of the greatest Doctors and from the beginning his teaching found many distinguished expositors within the order, among the earliest being his own pupils, John Peckham later Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew of Aquasparta, and Alexander of Alexandria (d. 1314), both of whom became ministers general of the order. The last named wrote a “Summa quaestionum S. Bonaventura. Other well-known commentaries are by John of Erfurt (d. 1317), Verilongus (d. 1464), Brulifer (d. c. 1497), de Combes (d. 1570), Trigosus (d. 1616), Coriolano (d. 1625), Zamora (d. 1649), Bontemps (d. 1672), Hauzeur (d. 1676), Bonelli (d. 1773), etc. From the fourteenth to the sixteenth century the influence of Bonaventure was undoubtedly somewhat overshadowed by that of Duns Scotus, owing largely to the prominence of the latter as champion of the Immaculate Conception in the disputes between the Franciscans and Dominicans. Sixtus V, however, founded a special chair at Rome for the study of Saint Bonaventure; such chairs also existed in several universities, notably at Ingolstadt, Salzburg, Valencia, and Osuna. It is worthy of note that the Capuchins forbade their Friars to follow Scotus and ordered them to return to the study of Bonaventure. The centenary celebrations of 1874 appear to have revived interest in the life and work of Saint Bonaventure. Certain it is that since then the study of his writings has steadily increased.

Unfortunately not all of Bonaventure’s writings have come down to us. Some were lost before the invention of printing. On the other hand, several works have in the course of time been attributed to him which are not his. Such are the “Centiloquium”, the “Speculum Disciplinæ”, which is probably the work of Bernard of Besse, Bonaventure’s secretary; the rhythmical “Philomela”, which seems to be from the pen of John Peckham; the “Stimulus Amoris” and the “Speculum B.V.M.”, written respectively by James of Milan and Conrad of Saxony; “The Legend of Saint Clare”, which is by Thomas of Celano; the “Meditationes vitae Christi” composed by a Friar Minor for a Poor Clare, and the “Biblia pauperum” of the Dominican Nicholas of Hanapis. Those familiar with the catalogues of European libraries are aware that no writer since the Middle Ages had been more widely read or copied than Bonaventure. The earliest catalogues of his works are those given by Salimbene (1282), Henry of Ghent (d. 1293), Ubertino of Casale (1305), Ptolemy of Lucca (1327) and the “Chronicle of the XXIV Generals” (1368). The fifteenth century saw no less than fifty editions of Bonaventure’s works. More celebrated than any preceding edition was that published at Rome (1588-96) by order of Sixtus V (7 vols. in fol.). It was reprinted with but slight emendations at Metz in 1609 and at Lyons in 1678. A fourth edition appeared at Venice (13 vols. in 4to) 1751, and was reprinted at Paris in 1864. All these editions were very imperfect in so far as they include spurious works and omit genuine ones. They have been completely superseded by the celebrated critical edition published by the Friars Minor at Quaracchi, near Florence. Any scientific study of Bonaventure must be based upon this edition, upon which not only Leo XIII (13 December, 1885) and Pius X (11 April, 1904), but scholars of all creeds have lavished the highest encomiums. Nothing seems to have been omitted which could make this edition perfect and complete. In its preparation the editors visited over 400 libraries and examined nearly 52,000 manuscripts, while the first volume alone contains 20,000 variant readings. It was commenced by Father Fidelis a Fanna (d. 1881) and completed by Father Ignatius Jeiler (d. 1904): “Doctoris Seraphici S. Bonaventuræ S. H. born Episcopi Cardinalis Opera Omnia, — edita studio et cura P. P. Collegii S. Bonaventura in fol. ad Claras Aquas [Quaracchi] 1882-1902″. In this edition the works of the saint are distributed through the ten volumes as follows: the first four contain his great “Commentaries on the Book of Sentences”; the fifth comprises eight smaller scholastic works such as the “Breviloquium” and “Itinerarium”; the sixth and seventh are devoted to his commentaries on Scripture; the eighth contains his mystical and ascetic writings and works having special reference to the order; the ninth his sermons; whilst the tenth is taken up with the index and a short sketch of the saint’s life and writings by Father Ignatius Jeiler.

We do not possess any formal, contemporary biography of Saint Bonaventure. That written by the Spanish Franciscan, Zamorra, who flourished before 1300, has not been preserved.

MLA Citation

  • Paschal Robinson. “Saint Bonaventure”. Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913. 8 May 2012. Web. 18 April 2014. <>