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Home Indice e rubriche Primitivi pisani fuori contesto The Seal of the Pisan Franciscans in the V&A

The Seal of the Pisan Franciscans in the V&A

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di Donal Cooper e Chiara Frugoni

This article presents the fourteenth-century seal matrix of the Pisan Franciscans, now conserved at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Unknown to the literature on either Pisan art or Franciscan seals, the intaglio carving of a maritime miracle on the Pisan matrix poses an iconography puzzle. Several possible readings are considered here, together with an analysis of the seal's role in the construction of a specifically local identity for the Pisan Franciscans within the Tuscan Province and the Order as a whole.

When it comes to the United Kingdom, scholars of medieval seals head to the British Museum in Bloomsbury, home of the national collection of seal dies. Although the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) across London in South Kensington is dedicated to the decorative arts broadly defined, and has a dedicated metalwork department, its acquisitions policy has traditionally respected the British Museum’s pre-eminence in this field. But the dividing line between the collecting habits of the two institutions was not always so clearly drawn, and a number of notable seal matrices entered the V&A’s collections shortly after the museum was founded in the middle of the nineteenth century. These objects have tended to escape the attention of specialists, precisely because they are not where one would expect to find them.

Among these early arrivals were two Italian ecclesiastical seal matrices, purchased together in 1854, when the fledgling museum was still located in Marlborough House and known as the ‘Museum of Manufactures’1. Of these, one is a late thirteenth-century Abbot’s seal for the Camaldolese monastery of San Niccolò at Monte Orvietiano, ten miles north of Orvieto2. The second (museum number 1201-1854) is the subject of this short article (fig. 1). Its inscription identifies the matrix as the seal of the Franciscan custody of Pisa:

«+ S[igillum] Custodie Pis-ane O[r]d[in]is Mi[n]or[um]»


Unusually, instead of running continuously around the border of the matrix from the top, the inscription is restricted to the lower half of the seal. Above, it makes space for the seal’s main iconographic feature, an enthroned, hooded and haloed figure, set within a mandorla born aloft by two supporting angels. Below, two friars are depicted aboard a simple wooden boat. They are identified as Franciscans by their tonsures and the prominent, pointed hoods of their habits. In addition, the friar to the right (in the wax impression) clearly wears the distinctively Franciscan knotted cord around his wait. His companion clasps either an oar or a tiller with both hands. Below, the design is more stylised. There is evidently some attempt to depict water, but the waves are not continuous. Indeed they seem to compete with rocky outcrops.

The protagonists in the upper and lower sections of the scene are linked by a rope, knotted to resemble the Franciscan cord. The friar to the left clutches it, gazing up at the vision above. The rope can be traced up past the waist of the enthroned figure to his or her hands, which are clasped in prayer. We will return to the interpretation of this figure shortly, but it seems clear that we are being presented with a miracle of friars at sea saved from shipwreck by heavenly intervention in the form of the vision depicted on the upper half of the seal.

The seal has been published once before, in Marian Campbell’s fundamental introductory article to the holdings of Italian silver in the V&A3. But it has never been cited in the literature on Franciscan seals. The matrix is now on display for the first time in living memory in the new Medieval and Renaissance Galleries at the V&A, which opened in December 2009.4 It measures 54 by 32 millimetres, with a maximum thickness of 14 mm. The body of the seal is cast from copper alloy, its design carved in intaglio, the standard technique for producing seals in this period.

The inscription on the V&A matrix identifies it as the seal of the «custodia Pisana», a custody being the principal subdivision of convents within an individual province of the Franciscan Order. The Pisan custody was one of seven in the Order’s Tuscan province, or the «Provincia Tusciae»5. A pergamena of January 1357, confirming the appointment of lay procurators for the Pisan custody, names Pisa, Vico, Sarzana and Pontremoli as its constituent convents6. According to Mauro Ronzani, this administrative network was already in place by the beginning of the Trecento7. The Pisan «custos» was a separate office from the local «guardianus», responsible only for the city’s convent of San Francesco8.

On the basis of its shape, style and inscription, the V&A seal may be dated to the first half of the fourteenth century. It bears comparison with a number of other Franciscan custodial seals that have survived either as matrices or through impressions. As Julian Gardner, Christa Gardner von Teuffel and most recently Ruth Wolff have discussed, the Order’s seals presented distinct identities by deploying Franciscan legends associated with their localities9. Thus the seal of the custody of Chiusi, the matrix of which is conserved in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence, depicted the mystic marriage of St. Francis and Lady Poverty, a vision that occurred near San Quirico in the Val d’Orcia, on the road between Chiusi and Siena10. The later fifteenth-century seal of the Gubbio custody portrayed St. Francis with the wolf of Gubbio, drawing on the legend that appears for the first time in the fourteenth-century Fioretti11.

So it is likely that the subject depicted on the V&A seal had some particular significance for the Franciscans of Pisa and the surrounding area. In generic terms, a maritime miracle would have constituted an apt choice for communities that had close links with the Mediterranean and the islands of Corsica and Sardinia. But can we identify the subject more precisely?

Padre Servus Gieben of the Capuchin Historical Institute in Rome, the leading authority on Franciscan seals and curator of the Museo Francescano (which holds an unrivalled collection of impressions of Franciscan seals) has identified a precise match for the subject depicted on the seal12. This is a miraculous story of Franciscans saved from shipwreck by an apparition of St. Francis, who unfastens his cord and lowers it to help the friars lift their ship free of the rocks on which it had run aground. However, as Padre Gieben was the first to point out, the story is only known from a seventeenth-century Franciscan chronicle, is dated to 1604, and specifies a voyage from India to Portugal. It is possible that the miracle drew on an established topos or transposes a much earlier story now lost to us, but this particular legend cannot be related to the Pisan seal.

There are of course maritime miracles of St. Francis in the Saint’s medieval hagiography, and some of these concern friars from Pisa13. At the end of Chapter iv of the treatise of miracles appended to the end of the Legenda Maior, a chapter dedicated to «Those delivered by shipwreck», Bonaventure concluded:

«I do not believe that it is possible to tell one by one all the outstanding miracles by which this holy Father [Francis] has been and is still glorified on the sea, or how often he has brought help to those in desperate straits there. But it is not surprising that authority over the waters has been granted to him now reigning in heaven, when, even while he was in this mortal life, all earthly creatures served him marvellously, restored to their original condition»14.

However, none of the maritime miracles recounted by Bonaventure or other Franciscan writers offers a plausible match for the subject rendered on the V&A seal. There is, moreover, the possibility that the enthroned figure on the seal does not represent St. Francis at all. The Stigmata cannot be discerned, although this may be due to the object’s miniature format15. The nature of the hood also leaves the figure’s gender open to debate. The seated figure in a mandorla with hands clasped in prayer matches the well-known iconography of the Assumption of the Virgin, and the knotted cord may be an allusion to the Virgin’s girdle, which fell to earth as she ascended.

It is also possible that the figure represents a veiled nun, perhaps St. Clare. The Poor Clare’s had a significant presence in the city following the foundation of their new monastery at San Martino in the Kinzica district south of the river Arno in 1331-3216. This convent is known to have had a community of Franciscan friars attached to it and, writing towards the end of the Trecento, Bartolommeo of Pisa included San Martino in his catalogue of convents in the «Custodia Pisana».17 Bartolommeo also added a maritime miracle to St. Clare’s legend, whereby the saint had responded to the prayers of those aboard a doomed ship sailing from Pisa to Sardinia18. This was an impressive miracle, where St. Clare sent down three beams of light to the bow, stern and mast of the ship, closing a break in the vessel’s hull in the process. But again, the story does not correspond precisely with the V&A seal.

A fourth and final possibility for the mandorla figure should be allowed for. The cult of the Blessed Gherardo of Valenza, a Franciscan friar who had died in Palermo in 1342, was launched in Pisa in 1343 when Fra Bartolommeo Albizi bought an arm relic of the Blessed from Sicily to Pisa19. Over the next four years, Blessed Gherardo work a multitude of miracles and his image in San Francesco in Pisa was decked with wax effigies and other ex voto offerings. Albizi documented this explosion of prodigies and devotion in 1347 by compiling a book of miracles that Gherardo had performed over the previous four years in both Sicily and Pisa20. Many were worked at sea and one of these was experienced by a certain Fra Bartolo of Pisa and two fellow friars returning from France to Pisa by ship21. The tempest that was threatening to overwhelm their vessel was calmed within the space of one Paternoster through the sincere invocation of Blessed Gherardo. Once again, however, there is no precise match for the V&A seal.

For now, the interpretation of the subject that the Pisan Franciscans chose for their seal must remain open. Their community was strongly orientated toward the sea, and by the middle of the fourteenth century its friars had received the blessings of St. Francis, St. Clare, and Blessed Gherardo of Valenza on the waters of the Mediterranean. The V&A seal surely reflects this maritime experience. Of the possibilities considered here, a vision of the Virgin or an earlier version of the seventeenth-century Francis miracle are probably the most likely. Although not of the same quality as the Sienese seal produced for the custody of Chiusi, in iconographic terms the Pisan matrix is one of the most important and earliest examples of Francisan seal production to survive. It is to be hoped that future research will resolve the reading of its enigmatic intaglio carving.


1. Seal matrix, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, inv. 1201-1854


The authors are grateful to Padre Servus Gieben, Marian Campbell and Roxanne Peters for their generous help and advice in preparing this paper.

1 For the early history of the South Kensington Museum, renamed the V&A in 1899, see A. Burton, Vision and Accident: The story of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London 1999.

2 Museum number 1200-1854, displaying a standing figure of St. Nicholas and the inscription: S[igillum] Abb[atis] Monast[erii] S[ancti] Nicholai M[ontis] Urbvet[er]ani.

3 M. Campbell, L’Oreficeria italiana nell’Inghilterra medievale: con una nota sugli smalti italiani del XIV e XV secolo nel Victoria and Albert Museum, in Oreficerie e smalti traslucidi nei secoli XIV e XV, «Bollettino d’arte. Supplemento», 43, 1987, pp. 8-9, fig. 14 (dated to ca.1350, with the mandorla figure identified as the Virgin).

4 The seal is displayed in room 10, case 2 of the new galleries, for further information see the V&A website at:

5 For the administrative structure of the Tuscan Province at the end of the fourteenth century, see Bartolomeo da Pisa, De Conformitate Vitae Beati Francisci ad Vitam Dominam Iesu, «Analecta Franciscana», IV, 1904, pp. 517-519: «Provincia Tusciae habet custodias 7».

6 Pisa, Archivio di Stato, Diplomatico Vierucci, 7 January 1357: the document confirmed the appointment of Gratiolo da Gangareto as «administrator, yconomus, sindicus, ac actor Pisane Custodie fratrum ordinis minorum videlicet Pisani, Vicani, et Sarzane conventuum ac fratrum singulorum» and of Giovanni di Ser Lippi, Gratiolo’s deputy, as «Pisane Custodie, videlicet Pisani, Vicani, Sarzane, et Pontremulensis conventuum et fratrum singulorum verum et legiptimum administratorem, yconomum, sindicum et actorem».

7 M. Ronzani, Il Francescanesimo a Pisa fino alla metà del Trecento, «Bollettino Storico Pisano», 54, 1985, p. 51; Idem, La chiesa e il convento di S. Francesco nella Pisa del Duecento, in Il Francescanesimo a Pisa (secc. XIII-XIV) e la missione del Beato Agnello in Inghilterra a Canterbury e Cambridge (1224-1236), eds. O. Banti and M. Soriani Innocenti, Pisa, 2003, p. 44; the composition of the custody is confirmed by Bartolomeo da Pisa, De Conformitate…, 1904, p. 517: «Custodia Pisana habet locum de Pisis […] Locum de Vico Pisano, in quo beatus Franciscus fuit et praedicavit; locum Sancti Martini; locum Serzanae et locum de Pontremulo». The extra convent of San Martino refers to the community of friars attached to the important Clarissan convent of that name in the Kinzica district of Pisa, across the Arno from San Francesco.

8 The local hierarchy is graphically illustrated by the list of fifty-three friars presented to the curia of the archbishop of Pisa in May 1319 by the Custodian Fra Giovanni da Settimo. The new ‘Custos’, Fra Bindo da Pisa, is then listed first ahead of the Guardian and Lector of San Francesco in Pisa, see Pisa, Archivio Arcivescovile, Atti Straordinarii 2, fol. 32v; cited by Ronzani, Il Francescanesimo…, 1985, p. 51.

9 J. Gardner, Some Cardinals’ Seals of the Thirteenth Century, «Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes», XXXVIII, 1975, pp. 72-96, remains an essential introduction for Italian seals in the decades around 1300. On Franciscan seals, see C. Gardner von Teuffel, Niccolò di Segna, Sassetta, Piero della Francesca and Perugino: Cult and Continuity at Sansepolcro, «Städel Jahrbuch», XVII, 1999, pp. 184, 190; R. Wolff, The Sealed Saint: Representations of Saint Francis of Assisi on Medieval Italian seals, in Good Impressions: Image and authority in medieval seals, eds. N. Adams, J. Cherry and J. Robinson, London, 2008, pp. 91-99.

10 For the Chiusi seal, see: E. Cioni, Sigilli medioevali senesi, Firenze 1981, pp. 6-7, fig. 3a, p. 25, cat. no. 5; Sigilli nel Museo nazionale del Bargello, eds. A. Muzzi, B. Tomasello, A. Tori, Firenze 1988, I (Sigilli Ecclesiastici), p. 260, cat. no. 628. The inscription in the seal’s border reads: Vicarii fr[atru]m Minor[um] custodie clusine; another inscription directly above the figures of St. Francis and the Three Virtues reads: b[e]n[e] ve[n]iat / d[omi]na paup[er]ta[s]. It measures 49 x 28 mm and is bronze with traces of gilding. Cioni has dated the Chiusi seal to the end of the thirteenth century or the beginning of the fourteenth and, noting the exceptional quality of its intaglio carving, associated it with the Sienese goldsmith Guccio da Mannaia.

11 For the Gubbio seal, see Gardner von Teuffel, Niccolò di Segna…, 1999, p. 184. The border inscription reads: sigillu[m] custodie eugubine.

12 By email correspondence with Donal Cooper, April 2007. The story is found in an old Dutch chronicle: Nicolaus van Estveldt, Chronycke ende Gheslacht-boom van den Seraphycken Vader S. Franciscus, Brussels 1656, p. 309, which in turn cites an earlier source, the «Chronica Gallica ex Italico, liber X, in fine». We are indebted to Padre Gieben for generously bringing this legend to our attention.

13 See Bartolomeo da Pisa, De Conformitate…, «Analecta Franciscana», V, 1906, p. 482, for the miraculous saving of a boy who had fallen overboard, witnessed by a friar from Pisa: «Frater Laurentius Masca de Pisis dum iret ad Sardiniam custos, puer quidem de navi cecidit in mare; qui beatum Franciscum invocans, super aquas stetit donec barca pro ipso ivit».

14«Quantis autem miraculorum prodigiis beatus hic Pater in mari claruerit et clarescat, quoties ibidem opem tulerit desperatis, nullatenus credo possibile per singula enarrare. Nec mirum, si iam regnanti in caelis collatum est imperium super aquas, cui et in hac mortalitate degenti omnis corporea creatura ad suam refigurata originem mirabiliter serviebat»; English translation taken from Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, eds. R. J. Armstrong, J. A. Wayne Hellmann, W. J. Short , II, New York, 2000, p. 665.

15 For the difficulty of representing the Stigmata on seals, see Wolff, The Sealed Saint…, 2008, p. 93.

16 The former Benedictine monastery of San Martino was ceded to the Clares in 1331-32, see M. Ronzani et al., La chiesa di San Martino, Pisa, 2007, pp. 28-29.

17 For Bartolomeo’s list, see above, note 7.

18 Bartolomeo da Pisa, De Conformitate…, 1904, p. 356: «Et licet innumera sunt ipsius beatae Clarae miracula, unum referam, quod audivi ab illo, cui evenit. Cum nonnulli de civitate Pisani irent Sardiniam, superveniente horribili maris tempestate cum tenebrosa noctis obscuritate, ac vi tempestatis navi aperta in fundo, omnes in navi exsistentes videntes sibi mortem adesse, coeperunt suffragia Virginis et sanctorum cum lacrymis flagitare; sed cum minime exaudirentur, beatam Claram coeperunt invocare, promittentes, quod pro liberatione sua discalceati et in camisia cum corrigia ad collum ac uno cereo unius librae in manibus, ipsius de Pisis ecclesiam visitarent; statim, facto voto, tria lumina de caelo descenderunt; unum se posuit in prora navis, aliud in puppi, tertium ad sentinam descendit navis et foramen clausit, per quod aqua maris intrabat; et facta est tranquillitas in mari, et cum vento prospero ista tria lumina nunquam eos dimittendo, usque Arestanum [i.e. Oristano] ipsa nocte ierunt. In cuius portu cum essent omnes homines in terra, et mercantiae de navi amotae, videntibus omnibus, lumina illa tria disparuerunt, et navis absorpta est ab aquis; ipsi vero homines, Pisis reversi, votum perfecerunt».

19 For Gherardo’s cult in Pisa, see M. Bacci, Le bienhereux Gérard de Valenza, O.F.M.: Images et croyances dans la Toscane du XIVe siècle, «Revue Mabillon», n. s. XII, 2001, pp. 97-119.

20 For Albizi’s legend, see F. Rotolo, La leggenda del B. Gerardo Cagnoli, O. Min. (1267-1342) di Fra Bartolomeo Albizi O. Min. (†1351), «Miscellana francescana», LVII, 1957, pp. 367-446; Idem, Il trattato dei miracoli del B. Gerardo Cagnoli, O. Min. (1267-1342) di Fra Bartolomeo Albizi, O. Min. (†1351), «Miscellanea francescana», LXVI, 1966, pp. 128-190.

21 Rotolo, Il trattato dei miracoli…, p. 143.


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