I'm coming back after a long absence, now able to type with two hands again! I hope you will enjoy reading about Lady Jacopa, and I hope you also like the improved method for the footnotes.

Lady Jacoba’s Veil

When I visited Assisi in 2007 for the celebration on the eighth centenary of the birth of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, I spent some time at the Basilica of San Francesco, including an unforgettable visit to the Chapel of the Relics, where I saw the coarsely woven woolen habit of St. Francis, the blessing he left for Brother Leo, and other mementos of the Poverello. The most striking and unusual object was a beautifully embroidered, almost transparent silk veil or handkerchief. According to Thomas of Celano’s Treatise on the Miracles, this was the cloth that covered St. Francis’ face at his funeral rites.[1]

This veil is a precious memory of the friend of St. Francis known as the Lady Jacoba (Giacomina) de Settesoli, a woman from one of the most powerful noble families in Rome. Francis first met her in Rome around 1212, and she listened to him preach and adhered to his teachings. They soon developed a devoted friendship. Francis gave Jacoba the gift of a lamb he had rescued from death, and it became her constant companion, even waking her in the morning when she was slow in getting up for Mass. Francis sent for her at his death, and she brought him everything needed for his funeral: the veil for his face, a red silk cushion for his head and a new grey wool habit. She also brought him the mostaccioli, the sweet that she had made for him with her own hands in Rome.

Most modern Secular Franciscans know about Jacoba from her frequent appearance in early Franciscan literature and modern biographies of St. Francis. What they might not know is that some nineteenth-century historians didn’t believe that Jacoba actually existed. In the early biographies or vitae of St. Francis (at least the ones then known), she is mentioned in only one passage, Bonaventure’s Legenda Majora, which describes the gift of the lamb (ch 8). The fourteenth-century Fioretti, and some later works did describe her presence at Francis’ death, but these were thought to be an amplification due to legend.[2] Paul Sabatier, a Protestant historian, who first published the Speculum Perfectionis (the Mirror of Perfection), in 1898, believed this work was very early, from 1228 (something that has since been disproved). But the story of Jacoba at Francis’ death was there, and Sabatier devoted a whole appendix to her, demonstrating through documents in the archives of Assisi that she actually lived, and was still alive in 1273.[3]

Almost at the same time, a manuscript of the Treatise on the Miracles by Thomas of Celano, written around 1250, was discovered, containing an account of her deathbed visit to St. Francis – everything was confirmed by Francis’ first biographer.

There are only a handful of book-length treatments of the Lady Jacoba, and no book readily available in English. So I have begun research on her, and may soon have enough for a book.

The areas I wanted to comment on here are: Was Jacoba really a Franciscan tertiary? And was she a saint? And what was her connection to the church of San Francesco a Ripa, the first church of the Franciscans in Rome? I want to examine each of these interesting questions, which will probably take another post as well. I will deal with the first two here, and save the material on San Francesco a Ripa for the next post; it will be an excellent preliminary to another post I want to write on another holy Roman noblewoman associated with this church, Bl. Ludovica dei Albertoni, who was a Franciscan tertiary.

A Saint and a Tertiary?

Jacoba was certainly considered a saint within a short time of her death. Celano wrote that she was known for both her nobility and her sanctity.[4] The legend on the fresco originally on her tomb in the basilica of San Francesco in Assisi reads “Here lies Jacoba, a holy Roman noblewoman.” But she has never had a beatification or canonization process. She is only rarely called Saint or Blessed today. The Franciscan Saint of the Day calls her Servant of God.[5] All the same, her death is commemorated on Feb. 8 locally in Assisi (and oddly enough, as St. Jacqueline, in France).

The early Franciscan works don’t describe Jacoba as a tertiary. Later writers have described her as a member of the Third Order, or even said that she inspired Francis to found the order. The Capuchin scholar Edouard d’Alencon believed that Jacoba entered the Third Order, but admitted that the date is impossible to determine.[6] He examined a document from 1217 that shows that Jacoba, by then a widow, had been engaged in some litigation with the Holy See in regard to the property rights claimed by her late husband and money owed by the Pope to the family. In the document, Jacoba renounced the property rights and forgave the debt owed, and as for the family’s debts to the Pope’s nephews, she agreed to pay them from the family property. Pere Edouard commented that this is in line with what Francis required of both the friars and the early tertiaries: to avoid litigation and quarrels.[7]

I think that we can go further, and note that in the Exhortation of St. Francis to the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, Francis writes: “And no matter where, when, or how a person dies in the guilt of sin without penance and satisfaction, if he can perform an act of satisfaction and does not do so, the devil snatches his soul from its body with such anguish and distress that no one can know what it is like] except the one receiving it.” The nature of this satisfaction is made clearer in the later redaction of the exhortation, sometimes known as the “Letter to all the Faithful,” in which Francis, in urging penitents to make their will, notes that the priest will ask them, “Do you wish to make satisfaction, as far as you can, out of your wealth, for what you have done and the ways in which you have cheated and deceived people?" and points out that they cannot do this if they neglect satisfaction before their death and leave all their money to their relatives. [8] We can see that what Jacoba did with her family’s property and money is in line with the exhortation with St. Francis; at least in this she obeyed the rule of life Francis laid down for those who do penance.

Another interesting fact that Pere Edouard brings up is that at some point after Francis’ death, the Lady Jacoba moved to Assisi, and according to the documents that Sabatier found, she acted as a benefactor to the friars, who needed sustenance but couldn’t accept money; he cites two wills in which money was left to her to provide meals to the friars and a tunic for Brother Leo. He also notes that Jacoba evidently gave up all reference to her noble family in being addressed, for in these documents she is known only as Lady Jacoba of Rome.[9] Another thirteenth century Franciscan collection refers to her as “Madonna Giacomina Romana.”[10] This gives a good idea of her Franciscan humility.

In regard to art works depicting Jacoba as a tertiary, there is very little certain evidence: Sabatier noted that the fresco over her tomb shows her as a Franciscan tertiary.[11] The painting (right) shows her wearing a long dark-brown or black tunic (because of the restoration it has undergone, it’s hard to tell the original color) and black veil, with a cord like those of the Franciscans. It shows her as, informed by an angel of St. Francis’ impending death, she takes the fine woolen habit to him. But this fresco actually dates from the last half of the sixteenth century, so can’t really be used to show an early tradition about Jacoba’s membership in the Third Order.[12]

There is a possible earlier portrayal—the figure of a woman in Simone Martini’s Five Saints fresco in the St. Elizabeth chapel in the Lower Church of the Basilica of San Francesco, painted around 1316-19. This figure, who wears a simple rough tunic and white veil, has sometimes been identified with Jacoba, due to her simple habit, like those of the tertiaries, and the seven orbs in her halo, which some have thought to represent the “Settesoli” (in Latin Septesoliis or seven planets) in the name of the fortress of the Frangipani family in Rome.[13] But the other figures in this fresco have been identified with a great deal of certainty with the various Franciscan saints associated with the House of Anjou, which intermarried with the Arpad dynasty in Hungary, the family of St. Elizabeth, who appears in the painting in her royal garb and crown. Another figure can be securely identified as St. Louis of Toulouse, a Franciscan bishop who belonged to the House of Anjou. The unidentified female figure is most likely St. Agnes of Bohemia, the cousin of St. Elizabeth, who was a Poor Clare. Agnes received a white veil from Clare of the same type the figure is wearing.[14] Jacoba clearly doesn’t belong in this royal family portrait. I don’t know of any other early portraits of Jacoba. So we are left without any clear early artistic tradition about her as a tertiary. The literary tradition is also is of a late date.

The early tradition of the growth of the Order of Penance itself is uncertain. In writing my dissertation on St. Elizabeth of Hungary, I noted that the end of the thirteenth century and looking back to Franciscan origins, Franciscan writers seem confused or uncertain about how to describe Elizabeth’s place in the Franciscan movement. Some tried to assign her an identity as a Poor Clare, because her habit was similar to Clare’s; others began to identify her as a member of the Third Order, after it received its definitive juridical structure and rule in 1289. So there were two different traditions within the order in regard to Elizabeth’s place in the Franciscan family; the tradition of the Third Order became the predominant one in the later fourteenth century when the juridical status of the Franciscan tertiaries became more certain and the way Elizabeth’s life fit into the idea of the Third Order was recognized.[15] So whether any early penitent who followed Francis’ exhortations (and it’s quite possible Lady Jacoba was one), was formally an member of what we now know as the Third Order, is often difficult to say, because the earliest writers are frequently confused about just what a Franciscan penitent was. I will be continuing my research in this area.


[1] “The Treatise on the Miracles of Saint Francis by Thomas of Celano (1250–1252),” 6:17, in Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, 2:417–19. The Latin reads “syndonem pro facie,” Analecta Bollandiana 18 (1898): 128. The ancient Latin /Greek word sindon or syndon first meant a fine muslin or silk cloth used to wipe the sweat from the face, and later used for a funerary veil. Later it came to also mean a shroud.

[2] Edouard d’Alencon, OFM Cap., “Jacqueline de Settesoli.” Etudes Franciscaines 2 (1899), p. 5.

[3] Paul Sabatier, “Visit de Jaqueline de Settesoli a S. Francis mourant.” Appendix to his edition of Speculum Perfectionis, (Paris: Fischbacher, 1898), pp. 273-76.

[4] Celano, ibid.

[5] See http://www.americancatholic.org/Features/Saints/Saint.aspx?id=1887&calendar=1

[6] Edouard d’Alencon, op. cit. p. 237.

[7] Ibid., pp. 13-15.

[8] For both these texts, I have used the English translation from here

[9] Edouard d’Alencon, op. cit. p. 237. Pere Edouard’s own Capuchin religious family had a long tradition of using only name and birthplace for the friars.

[10] Oliger, L. “Liber exemplorum fratrum minorum saeculi XIII, (excerpta e cod. ottob. lat. 522),” Antonianum 2 (1927) 238, cited by A. Fortini St. Francis of Assisi, trans. Helen Moak (NY: Crossroads, 1981), p. 668, note 5.

[11] Sabatier, op. cit., p. 273.

[12] See here

[13] Authors who identify this painting with Jacoba include M. Villain, Saint Francois et les peintres d’Assise (Paris, 1941), p. 177, and A. Terzi, San Francesco d’Assisi a Roma (Rome, 1956), p. 63; they are cited in Adrian S. Hoch, “Beata Stirpes: Royal Patronage an the Identification of the Sainted Rulers in the St. Elizabeth Chapel at Assisi.” Art History 15:3 (September 1992): 292.

[14] Hoch, op. cit., p. 282.

[15] Lori Pieper, “St. Elizabeth of Hungary and the Franciscan Tradition,” (Doctoral dissertation, Fordham University, 2002), p. 278.