(St Clare of Montefalco, circa 1670, from the Iglesia del Convento de Nuestra Señora del Pópulo de Agustinos Descalzos. Sevilla, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
The miracle-working saint with a very special heart (quite literally)
Clare Damiani was born in the Umbrian town of Montefalco in 1268. She was introduced to a cloistered life at an early age. When Clare was six, she was sent to live with her sister, Jane, who was the mother superior at the Saint Illuminata convent. Before she reached adulthood, Clare decided to remain in the convent lifestyle. When she had grown into a young woman, Clare and all of the nuns under superior Jane’s care, were transferred to a newly built convent—Santa Croce, also known as the Holy Cross Convent.
Saint Clare was the type of person that develops a natural aura of importance around them. She quickly garnered a reputation as an honorable, pious and virtuous woman. As such, when Jane died in 1298, the nuns of Santa Croce quickly elected the thirty-year-old Clare as their new mother superior.
The legends and tales about Saint Clare claim that she was a frequent force for good in her community. She refuted heretics that challenged the Catholic Church and her arguments could inspire faith in the formerly faithless. St. Clare’s wisdom and advice was also reportedly sought after to end disputes between feuding families, and to bring peace between warring countries.
If Catholic sources are to be believed, St. Clare also performed multiple miracles. Legends about Clare claim that she exercised, or expelled, more than a few demons. She also was thought to have a gift for prophecy, for she could sometimes foretell the future. In addition, St. Clare was reported to have the ability to heal the sick and wounded in other ways than medicine, and possibly even resurrect the dead. In her later years, St. Clare developed a more mystical relationship with God, and she experienced vivid visions. Clare’s career of public service and miracles, however, was cut short, because she died in 1308, at the age of forty, in her Santa Croce convent.
Even after Clare’s death, her dead body performed a few miracles of its own. At the time of St. Clare’s death, the western world was beginning to explore the study of human anatomy. The first recorded dissections of human cadavers occurred in the late 13th century in the universities of northern Italy. With the introduction of anatomy as a new craze in Europe, the curiosity of the nuns of Santa Croce caused them to investigate the body of Saint Clare in strange ways.
In life, St. Clare had been seen as such a unique woman that her fellow nuns suspected there may be physical signs of her saintliness. Caught up in their era’s interest of anatomy, the nuns took a knife to Clare’s body to see for themselves if she was built differently than the average human being. The nuns were amazed by what they found.
The nuns who performed the autopsy on St. Clare were thorough in their search for physical signs of saintliness. Their greatest finds were on, or in, St. Clare’s organs. On her heart, the nuns found a small cross about the size of a thumb, made of white muscular tissue. In her gall bladder they found three gall stones that they deduced were a symbol of the Holy Trinity.
Her body remains enshrined at a church adjacent to Santa Croce convent. Her status as a Blessed Christian was confirmed in 1624, and Pope Leo XIII officially canonized her as a saint in 1881.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Introduction to Medieval Europe, 300-1500 (Second Edition) by Wim Blockmans and Peter Hoppenbrouwers. New York: Routledge, 2014.