Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Franciscan Symbolism

by Sister M. Michaeline, O.S.F.


This article by Sister M. Michaeline, written in 1951, explains symbolism, in general, and examines the symbolic aspect of a few things unique to the Franciscan Order: St. Francis of Assisi, Peace, Poverty, Seraphic Love, the Sacred Stigmata, the Franciscan Escutcheon, and the Canticle of the Sun.

Larger Work

Franciscan Esthetics


131 – 139

Publisher & Date

Franciscan Educational Conference, Washington, D.C., 1951

The Franciscan Order abounds in symbolism. In fact it embodies so much inner meaning that practically everything that is Franciscan transcends mere outward appearances. It would be quite difficult, indeed impossible to cover in a matter of comparatively few minutes the entire field of Franciscan symbolism, taken from the many and various possible viewpoints. In looking at the different avenues of approach to the subject I chose, finally, to bring to the fore a few of the Franciscan qualities that grace the Order with that sublime inner beauty which diffuses itself as universally as that of the Founder himself. Peace, Poverty, Seraphic Love, The Sacred Stigmata, The Franciscan Escutcheon, The Canticle of the Sun. These are symbols of those things which are peculiar to the Franciscan Order alone, stamping it with the seal of Franciscanism.

Before delving into the heart of the subject it would be well to have a common understanding, or feeling, of symbolism in general.

Symbolism in General

Every man is hungry for the Infinite. Ultimate Reality, however, cannot be portrayed in graphic measure in order that we might see unmistakably Him for Whom we constantly reach. There is a need, therefore, for some universal device to give concrete form to Metaphysical Being. That device, that sign, that communicating means, representing or expressing the essence of that which is, is what we term a symbol. The word symbol is derived from two Greek words meaning "together" and "to throw." If placed side by side they may imply a throwing together or combination of an abstract idea and a visible sign, the visible sign expressing the invisible or the abstract idea.1 The sign may be an act or a thing which, by analogy, recalls to one's mind some truth or spiritual concept. A symbol is a reminder of something already known. As Graham Carey states it: "The symbol of the Cross does not describe the Christian concept of the Redemption, but to anyone already familiar with this idea, it expresses it."2 That is why we say that the symbol must be a universal device; something which everyone has agreed to accept as meaning a certain thing. For example: When a motorist raises his hand upward he is signaling to the drivers behind him that he intends to make a right-hand turn. In nature, the sun has been the symbol of a Supreme Being among all Races and Creeds. In Religion, as already mentioned, the Cross is a symbol of the Redemption.

A symbol stands for something. It is not an intentional resemblance of the thing.3 For example: Leonardo's painting of the "Last Supper" portrays the historical fact of the institution of the Most Holy Eucharist; but we have been long accustomed to believe that the pelican with its brood of young, the chalice and the host, wheat and grapes, fish and bread, are symbols of it.

Symbolism Defined

Symbolism may then be defined as "the investing of outward things or actions with an inner meaning, especially for the expression of religious ideas."4

We live in a world of signs. Unless we are attuned to the host of symbols we most likely will exhaust our energies in grasping the finite, thinking the while that we are capturing the Infinite, dismayed that the chasm of our hunger yawns ever wider. We who are of the Family of St. Francis need but to look up to our Father for our lesson. Francis was a practical man and he teaches his lesson in like manner — the mighty lesson that outward things bear a deep inner meaning.

Symbol of Franciscan Social Work

Pax et bonum! Peace and all good wishes! "Words are signs of things."5 The Franciscan greeting of peace is a symbol of Franciscan social work. We know that St. Francis was an instrument of peace on numberless occasions during his lifetime. Many such instances could be cited, but one in particular will suffice at this time. It happened toward the end of our Saint's life. The Bishop of Assisi and a Public Official of the same city were in bitter conflict. Bishop Guido excommunicated the Podesta and he in turn forbade the merchants of the town to make a sale of anything whatsoever to the Bishop. Francis grieved at such conduct. It did not take him long, however, to devise a means of bringing reconciliation to the two belligerent parties. It was on this occasion that Francis composed an additional stanza to the "Canticle of the Sun":

Praised be my Lord for all those who
pardon one another for His love's sake,
and who endure weakness and tribulation;
Blessed are they who peaceably shall endure,
for Thou Most High, shall give them a crown.6

He had Brother Pacificus, the one-time "King of Verses," and another gifted voice sing a duet before His Lordship and the seething Podesta. The result was just what Francis expected. Pardon and peace! Yes, peace, the symbol of Franciscan Social Work.

He crippled universally the evil of his day, the Feudal System, by establishing his Order of Tertiaries. Feudalism "consisted essentially in the oath-bound obligation of the vassal to draw arms and to follow his liege lord in strife and war."7 One precept in the Rule for the Third Order shattered the core of the system: "The brothers may not receive arms to be wielded against any person, nor bear them on their person. Let all refrain from taking oaths . . ."8 Large numbers of citizens, peasants and artisans clamored for admittance into the Order. We read in Felder's Ideals, "In a few decades half of Italy, not to mention other lands, were gathered about the religious and democratic standards of St. Francis of Assisi."9 Truly, peace, the Franciscan symbol of Franciscan Social Work!

We cannot give to others that which we ourselves do not possess. Francis was convinced that peace of soul was indeed a priceless treasure. He wished whole-heartedly that everyone might be the happy possessor of it. As a parting gift to Brother Leo, Francis gave in his own handwriting a Blessing of Peace from the Book of Numbers:

May the Lord bless thee and keep thee;
May He show thee His face
And have pity on thee;
And may He turn His face toward thee
And grant thee peace.10

To the world at large he left a Prayer for Peace which is uttered by thousands of men and women today hoping for the establishment of a true and lasting peace among nations. "Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace."

We, his children, have the Testament of our Father in which he urges us to greet each other with the salutation of peace:

The Lord revealed to me that we should employ this salutation: "The Lord give you Peace."11

Father James, in his work, The Franciscans, tells us that the first known portrait of St. Francis is to be seen at Subiaco, not far from Rome. The Saint is shown standing up, with his right hand on his breast, and in his left hand he holds a folio with the inscription Pax huic domui, Peace be to this house.12

This idea of peaceful greeting in the hope of establishing or maintaining peace is not an invention of Francis. In his absolute following of Christ and the Gospels he did simply what Christ did. On the Mount, Christ blessed the Peacemakers. He dismissed penitents with the words: Go in peace! His first greeting to the Apostles after His Resurrection was Pax vobis. Francis, the Mirror of Christ, reflected this same peace — tinged with Franciscan effulgence — Pax et bonum!

Symbol of Liberty and Freedom

Deus meus et omnia! My God and my All! Only to Francis and to those of his followers who are totally impregnated with his spirit of detachment can these words bear full significance. Poverty is the Franciscan symbol of liberty, of freedom. As a young chivalrous knight Francis fought in battle for freedom — and lost. In his captivity he met the Infinite Who adjusted for him his sense of values. The outcome of this incident was the discovery of his Lady-love. Francis realized that only his Lady Poverty could relinquish him from the trammels of things material and of self in order that, in liberty of spirit, he might adventure on into realms empyreal — there to find his Ultimate Love, his God, his All. I quote Father James on this thought:

The Lady Poverty was his own poetic principle. That principle was liberty. Poverty freed him from the cult of self; his spirit could then wing its flight to God. He had no fear lest possessing God he should have naught besides. Possessing God he felt rich indeed — "My God and my All!"13

Poverty, then, was for Francis a means of liberation, of freedom. It was merely a means, however — a means to an end. And that end, that aim was love. St. Francis is known by many titles but that of "Seraph of Assisi" is stamped and sealed indelibly with the very wounds of Crucified Love.

Symbol of Seraphic Love

This thought brings us to the consideration of the stigmata of St. Francis as the Sacred Symbol of Seraphic Love, or the perfect conformity with Christ. Of all the interpretations of this miracle St. Bonaventure gives us the most satisfying statement:

The six wings of the search can be rightly understood to signify the six uplifting illuminations by which the soul climbs upwards or ascends and is thus disposed to enter into peace, through the ecstatic transports of Christian Wisdom. The road to this peace is none other than that of a consuming love which transformed Paul so completely into Christ when he was rapt to the third heaven that he confessed: With Christ I am nailed to the Cross. It is no longer I that live but Christ lives in me. And this love so absorbed the soul of Francis that his spirit shone through his body the last years of his life, when he bore the most holy marks of the Passion in his body.

The vision of the six wings of the seraph, therefore, symbolizes the six degrees of illumination which begin with creatures and lead up finally to God, to Whom no one truly comes save through the Crucified.14

Franciscan Coat of Arms

We have in the Franciscan coat of arms the portrayal of this complete conformity of the Seraphic Francis with the Crucified Christ. But how are we, non-combatant, peace-loving, peace-fostering Franciscans justified in boasting a military insignia, since a coat of arms is primarily a military device? It is quite impossible to delve into a detailed discussion on the science of heraldry, or armorial bearings, just now. But a very brief sketch may serve as a review or even an enlightenment on the subject.

The origin of heraldry has not been totally plumbed. But historians and others have gathered sufficient data to give us a fair understanding of the science. Nations as well as individuals distinguished themselves by particular emblems and ensigns. Heraldic standards, emblems, and banners, personal and otherwise, can be traced to the Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, and Israelites. Eventually, too, the seal was evolved for stamping an official mark on documents and letters. But it was not until the time of the Crusades that the coat of arms rightly began. In the Age of Chivalry it became imperative to distinguish the knight, friend from the foe, housed as they were in almost identical armor of steel on the battlefield. The custom was then introduced to embroider the family emblem on the surcoat, a garment worn over the coat of mail. Thus originated the term "coat of arms."15 At first every knight assumed either the family emblem or whatever symbol he pleased. But as coats of arms became numerous, much confusion arose because of the similarity of armorial bearings. Heraldry was then systematized into a science.

Writers on heraldry state that not only individuals but communities and states are likewise entitled to the use of arms. Arms are classified under ten headings. One of these reads:

Arms of community; the arms of bishops' sees, abbeys, universities, towns and corporations.16

History of Franciscan Coat of Arms

St. Francis, although a chivalrous knight, a knight of Christ, had no escutcheon or shield or coat of arms for his family of friar-knights. But in the course of centuries there evolved a characteristic coat of arms full of meaning and interest. It first appeared in the year 1499 chiseled in a stone wall near the sacristy of the Church San Francesco al Deserto in Venice, with the inscription "De S. Francesco." The wounds on the hands either wore off or were not indicated by the artist. Whether the two hands were those of Francis, representing his usual manner of blessing the friars with crossed arms, or one of Christ and one of Francis, is questionable. The dominant note of the entire design is the Cross in the center of the shield just as it appears in the present coat of arms.17 Like the knight's coat of arms bearing some words of significance, the present arms of the Franciscans embodies the motto Deus meus et omnia, the symbol of detachment from self and transitory chattel, and complete union with and attachment to Christ.

Canticle of the Sun

The Canticle of the Sun is the symbol and genius of the life and ideals of Francis of Assisi.18 His entire life was a poem which he sang even when he walked in utter silence down the streets of his town. His soul was so absorbed in Seraphic Love, his vision so purified and clear, that he was delicately sensitive to the Unutterable Presence of his Eternal Love in every object. He paid deference and courtesy to every creature because every creature to him was a monstrance bearing the God of all truth, goodness and beauty. That is why he called all created things his brothers and sisters. Brother Sun and Brother Fire he loved the most because these were the symbols of God's love and goodness. Sister Water he cherished with tender reverence. When he washed his hands he was careful that the water which fell to the ground should not be trodden upon. And little wonder! "Water is a creature, and this commonplace fact is its first title of nobility. For to be a creature is to be in the thought and love of God."19 Moreover, has not Holy Mother Church bestowed a marvelous dignity on water? Every lamb reminded him of the Lamb of God. Out of reverence for Him Who was crucified on the tree of the Cross for our salvation he had the friars cut only as much of the tree as was necessary for wood, never the entire tree. He would pick a worm off a path where a foot might squash it, because it was said of Christ "I am a worm and no man." He trod upon the rocks with great care because the Lord was the Rock of Salvation. Flowers gave him much happiness; he delighted in their marvelous fragrance. They reminded him of the blossom sprung from the "Root of Jesse" which brought salvation to all mankind.

His attitude toward creatures is best explained in the words of Maurice Zundel in his work The Splendour of the Liturgy:

The very notion of them (creatures) takes us beyond their present realization towards the boundless Ocean of Being, and what is most perfect in the created order, includes in its own value its value as a symbol. In fact since every being possesses its peculiar excellence, it is essentially a revelation of God.

It is in this way that the Infinite is in creatures. It is thus that everything becomes worthy of veneration, and the world puts on grandeur.20

When his dynamic soul burst into song, it was but an echo of the store of sublime beauty which Francis imbibed from the sacred Liturgy. The Canticle of the Sun is the Benedicite omnia opera Domini Domino of Lauds, a calling on all creation to praise with all joyousness the God Who is all Joy. Maurice Zundel sings the Canticle of the Sun practically throughout his entire work on the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass showing forth the same spirit of limitless rejoicing in the Morning Oblation as was so characteristic of the life of St. Francis. Francis grasped the meaning of reality. That is why he sang. Coventry Patmore said "All realities will sing, nothing else will." The life of Francis was a poem because "The highest state of language is poetry . . ."21 "Music completes the process by abandoning all definite significance to express only the unutterable aspect of the universe."22 Perhaps that is why Francis frequently picked up two sticks and made believe he played the violin for his friar-brothers, trying to release a divine melody madly surging through his great soul.

Franciscan View of Creation

Francis gave us a new vision of the universe; a vision suffused with love and reverence. He gave us a symbolic vision of creation. The sacramental view of the universe has become the Franciscan view of God's creation. Each creature is a symbol, a reminder, of the presence of the Lord of All. Creation, then, becomes Franciscan Symbolism through the singing of a rapturous Canticle of the Sun, the praising of God in and through all that is made by Him. We peer deeper into the glowing sunset and there we perceive the Flaming Countenance of Infinite Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. If we look with meaning into the radial spread of the daisy, we glimpse His sweet simplicity. As we halt and hearken to the song of the bird which has just darted before us and perched itself upon a swaying twig, in its silver, joyous strain we can detect a melody tinged with eternity. We listen to the evening stillness and hear the voice of our God. He speaks to us especially in the silences of our souls. When the husks of time have been stripped from it and nothing remains but the empty, crystal abyss of the soul, God enters His rightful abode and there speaks the language of a true friend — the language of silent love.


This earth no longer need be a vale of tears and thorns for the son or daughter of the Seraphic Saint. Following the example of our Father for whom everything was a symbol, a reminder of his Lord, we can truly say: My soul trembles with joy in the eternal ecstasy of Flaming Love — the Ever-presence of my God and my All!


  1. Carl van Treck and Aloysius Croft, Symbols in the Church (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Co., 1936), p. 1.
  2. Graham Carey, "Some Notes on the Design of Struck Medals," Liturgical Arts, Nov., 1948.
  3. James F. Anderson, The Bond of Being (An Essay on Analogy and Existence), (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1948), p. 183.
  4. The Encyclopedia Americana, (Chicago: Americana Corporation, 1948), p. 159.
  5. Maurice Zundel, The Splendour of the Liturgy (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1940), p. 75.
  6. Theodore Maynard, Richest of the Poor (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1948), p. 248.
  7. Hilarion Felder, O.M.Cap., Ideals of St. Francis of Assisi (Cincinnati: Benziger Bros., 1925), p. 292.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Idem, p. 293.
  10. Numbers, VI. 24-26.
  11. St. Francis of Assisi, Legends and Lauds, edited by Otto Karrer (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1948), p. 275.
  12. Father James, The Franciscans (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1950), p. 62.
  13. Idem, p. 50.
  14. St. Bonaventure, Itinerarium Mentis in Deum, as translated from the Spanish edition. Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, Madrid, MCMXLVII.
  15. The New International Encyclopedia, Vol. XI, (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1923), p. 175.
  16. Idem, p. 176.
  17. "The Franciscan Shield," Franciscan Review, July, 1947, p. 20.
  18. Felder, op. cit., p. 428.
  19. Zundel, op. cit., p. ii.
  20. Idem, p. 262.
  21. Idem, p. 70.
  22. Idem, 78.

© Franciscan Educational Conference

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