Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Francesca Romana heals a young man who had lost the use of his leg
  • Creator: Attributed to Antoniazzo Romano, painter
  • Description:

    This image comes from a series of 26 frescoes representing the life and miracles of Francesca Bussa dei Ponziani (or Frances of Rome (1384-1440)). In this painting, she is blessing a sick young man who is sitting in bed with an infected leg and thigh. The bloody bandages bear witness to the severity of the problem. The saint's blessing hand draws our attention to the ointment jar in the wall niche and to the parchment on top that records her recipe, all part of the cure that she will bring about. In the scene on the right, the young man, now healed, kneels before the saint in grateful thanks. While the scenes of miracles emphasize Francesca's healing power in imitation of Christ, there are some instances, like this painting, where the saint employs medical treatments to aid the sufferers


    Francesca was a holy woman from a noble family and was unusual in having married and had children. In 1425 she established a house for religious laywomen near the Tor de'Specchi (Tower of Mirrors), so that they could serve the poor. Following her husband's death in 1436, she joined the group at the Tor de'Specchi. The women shared a semi-religious life but were exempt from clausura (enclosure) by papal order. Following Francesca's death, the women called themselves the Oblates of Francesca Romana and lived by a group of 73 statutes that the saint had established for the group during her life. The community at Tor de'Specchi was part of a much larger movement giving women opportunities to live in the world and pursue a religious vocation. The female groups had many different names including beguines, tertiaries, pinzochere and mulieres religiosae and called for their members to take on such community roles as teachers, clothworkers, nurses and healers.

    In Francesca's Vita written by her confessor, Giovanni Mattiotti, one of the injured men explains that he sought the holy woman's help because he could not afford a physician. The Oblates deliberately established their house on the Capitoline Hill in an area inhabited by the poor. Noblewomen were often represented as almsgivers to the desperately needy, while they themselves were clothed in rich apparel and jewels. In contrast, Francesca sold her elaborate clothing for the benefit of the poor and wore old items made from the cheapest cloth. The Oblates served the needy, not only through sharing food and medical care, but they aided them in everyday ways. If a woman was ill, they would go and do her laundry or bring water. Francesca's miracles involving the multiplication of flour or bunches of grapes recall Christ's wonder working, but also reflect the practical concerns of a leader who daily must feed the poor as well as her fellow Oblates.

    Francesca Romana's life held great meaning for her contemporaries. The fresco series commissioned by the Oblates for the Tor de'Specchi oratory in 1468 was supplemented by another series in the refectory in 1485 reflecting her visions . Her Life by Mattiotti was written both in Latin and the vernacular in 1440 and 1447. The Life was then adapted by Fra Ippolito di Roma in three versions between 1452 and 1453. Testimony was gathered from witnesses for canonization in 1440, 1443 and 1451. Despite all these activities, Francesca Romana was not canonized until 1608, making her the first woman to become a saint, following Catherine of Siena in 1461. Her relics are to be found in the Roman church of Santa Francesca Romana, formerly Santa Maria Nuova.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Alms and Almsgiving Antoniazzo Romano, Painter Francesca Bussa dei Ponziani, Saint Hagiography Lay Piety Monastic Enclosure Oblates of Tor de’ Specchi Penitents Poverty Women in Religion
  • Geographic Area: Italy
  • Century: 15
  • Date: circa 1468
  • Related Work: 1) Drawing indicating the locations of the oratory and refectory paintings in Tor de'Specchi. See page 18.
    2) Francesca heals a young man who was badly beaten, Rome, Tor de'Specchi, Oratory.
    3) Francesca revives a little girl who was accidentally suffocated, Rome, Tor de'Specchi, Oratory.
    4. Francesca heals a man's arm nearly severed in a sword fight, Rome, Tor de'Specchi, Oratory.
    5. Francesca multiplies grain during a famine, Rome, Tor de'Specchi, Oratory. 6. Francesca discovers grapes growing in January, Rome, Tor de'Specchi, Oratory.
    7. Francesca receives the Eucharist, Rome, Tor de'Specchi, Oratory.
    8. Views of paintings both in the Oratory and the Refectory in Tor de'Specchi.
  • Current Location: Rome, Tor de'Specchi, Oratory
  • Original Location: Rome, Tor de'Specchi, Oratory
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital images; Paintings
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Frescoes;
  • Donor: Female religious; Oblates of Tor de'Specchi, possibly with the help of male advisers.
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): //
  • Inscription: Beneath the painting, the caption, in Roman dialect, reads: "Uno chiamato Iannni [Gianni] avendo per longa infirmita quasi perduta la gamma colla cossa et como fu racommandato alla beata Francesca subito fu liberamente sanato". [One called Gianni, who by a long illness almost lost a leg with the thigh. and when he was commended to Blessed Frances was fully cured.]
  • Related Resources: Esposito, Anna. "St. Francesca and the Female Religious Communities of Fifteenth- Century Rome." In Women and Religion in Medieval and Renaissance Italy. Edited by Daniel Bornstein and Roberto Rusconi. Trans. by Margery J. Schneider. University of Chicago Press, 1996. Pages 197 – 218;
    Scanlan, Suzanne M. Divine and Demonic Imagery at Tor de'Specchi, 1400-1500: Religious Women and Art in Fifteenth-Century Rome. Amsterdam University Press, 2018;
    "Statutes of Ordination for the Beata Francesca." In Scanlan, Suzanne M. Divine and Demonic Imagery at Tor de'Specchi, 1400-1500: Religious Women and Art in Fifteenth-Century Rome. Amsterdam University Press, 2018. Pages 165-170;
    Warr, Cordelia. "Clothing as Salvation: The Life and Representation of Santa Francesca Romana." Chapter Nine In Dressing for Heaven: Religious Clothing in Italy, 1215-1545. Manchester University Press, 2010. Pages 168-179.