St. Bonaventure – 750 Years in Eternity – Herald of Seraphic Love

What is more important: to know or to love? Two imposing figures who welcome pilgrims at St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican have something to tell us about this.

It is a summer’s night in the Eternal City. While everyone sleeps, a pilgrim quietly approaches the entrance to the grandiose St. Peter’s Square. In the stillness, the two colonnades, which symbolize the open arms of Mother Church,1 seem more welcoming than ever… Suddenly, the silence is broken by the sound of two deep and kindly voices. One says: “Can anyone love what he does not know?” The other replies: “Ama ut intelligas! – Love and you will understand!”

Who are these two speaking figures?

Two beautiful panes of the same stained glass window

At the Vatican entrance, the balustrades of the two colossal Doric colonnades are crowned with the statues of one hundred and forty saints who have marked the history of the Church. The two that conclude this magnificent welcoming procession are: St. Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor, and St. Bonaventure, the Seraphic Doctor. They were contemporaries, friends who studied concurrently the University of Paris, and friars of two mendicant orders founded in the same century: the Dominicans and the Franciscans.

The Church, which does everything with perfection, wished to signify that the two Doctors – one representing the thinking head of the Church and the other its loving heart – complement each other and together form the basis of the wisdom that sustains the edifice of Catholic Theology.

As Dr. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira explained, each soul “possesses an individuality through which it tends to better understand certain perfections of God,” and this excellence “is the object of man’s especially tender, ardent and intense love.”2 Thus, each saint is like a fragment of glass illuminated by a certain perfection of God, while all of them together form the stained glass window of divine excellences, thus completing the “Total Christ” – according to St. Augustine’s well-known expression – as members of a single Mystical Body.

Considered from this perspective, St. Thomas and St. Bonaventure contemplated the same God, but through different prisms. While the Angelic Doctor saw the Creator as the Supreme Truth, the knowledge of which blossoms in love, the Seraphic Doctor saw Him as the Highest Good that elicits our love. For the Dominican, love is nothing other than the consequence of knowledge and therefore the heart is driven by the mind; for the Franciscan, knowledge is at the service of love.3

A love that sees

But if no one can love what they do not know, how can knowledge be subordinate to love?

The Seraphic Doctor would respond as follows: when it comes to realities that provoke love, the very act of knowing is born of the requirements of love and is, in its own way, a form of love.4 Understanding a scientific principle is different from knowing a person you love. In the latter case, knowledge is all the deeper the greater the love, because those who love want to know the one they love.

This in no way negates the value of reason. There are certain summits in knowledge that the intellect will never have the courage to scale unless moved by love. This is why Franciscans, following the example of their founder, St. Francis of Assisi, and their great Doctor, St. Bonaventure, can adapt St. Anselm’s famous saying – “credo ut intelligam5 – and affirm: amo ut intelligam – I love in order to understand!

In short, we can consider St. Thomas as the intelligence that loves, and St. Bonaventure as the love that sees!

Even man’s ultimate purpose is considered by the two Doctors through different prisms. For St. Thomas, the supreme goal for which we were created consists in seeing God and, in this vision, finding perfect happiness. For St. Bonaventure, man’s ultimate destiny is to love God, to unite His love with our own.6

For the Seraphic Doctor, therefore, man is a being destined to give a response of love to God on behalf of the whole universe.7 This idea has profound consequences for his entire philosophy. The conclusions he draws from it for Metaphysics, Anthropology and Ethics are beyond the scope of this article. However, we can at least try to glimpse something of the method he employs.

Exemplarity and analogy

To aid our understanding, we can turn to the inspired paintbrush of Rafaello Sanzio in his celebrated work The School of Athens, which invites us to reflect on human thought. In it, the figures of Plato and Aristotle stand out among the great masters of Greek philosophy. Plato, with his right hand raised, points with his finger to the world above, while Aristotle regards his master, with his hand outstretched towards visible things.

These two attitudes represent two schools of thought which, when elevated to the supernatural, are like the two wings with which man flies to contemplate God and His work: the exemplary vision and the analogical vision. Whilst the former, represented by Aristotle in the painting, aims to explain higher realities from the consideration of earthly ones; the latter, modelled on Plato, aims to explain earthly realities from those above.

The exemplary and the analogical vision are two schools of thought which, when made supernatural, become two wings with which man flies to contemplate God
Detail of “The School of Athens”, by Rafael Sanzio – Vatican Museums.

Although the two schools are not mutually exclusive – and both are characteristic of the scholastic synthesis – St. Thomas focuses more on the analogical view, and St. Bonaventure on the exemplary perspective.

In order to understand the Seraphic Doctor’s outlook, we invite the reader to a reflection,8 beginning, according to his custom, in principio primum principium: “I begin by invoking the first Principle, that is, the Eternal Father, Father of Lights, source of all knowledge, of every good gift and every perfect gift.”9

Source and standard of all human science

Imagine an artist beginning his masterpiece. He first conceives in his mind the scene he wishes to paint. In the same way, the model for the work of art that is creation is in God the Father’s “mental image”. But this is none other than His Eternal Son, for the Father, through His knowledge of himself, begets the Word, who is His perfect Image, in which He expresses himself totally.10

Just as in the mental image conceived by the artist is the picture he is going to paint, so all that is created – and all that could have been created but was not – exists in that knowledge that the Father has of himself, which is the Word, His eternal Art according to St. Bonaventure’s most beautiful expression,11 as the exemplars according to which God modelled creation. It is this Divine Word who became flesh and dwelt among us (cf. Jn 1:14). For this reason, the Seraphic Doctor12 considers Christ to be the source and standard of all human science.

In the last lectures he gave at the University of Paris, he expressed the depth of his thought in this regard: “Our purpose is to demonstrate that in Christ ‘are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’ (Col 2:3).”13 No-one can claim to know anything that has been created if they do not begin with the One through whom everything was made (cf. Jn 1:3): “If anyone wishes to attain Christian wisdom, he must begin with Him.”14

For St. Bonaventure, creatures cannot even be considered without this background. He sees the universe as a book in which each creature is a word that speaks to us of God, as copies of the archetypes enclosed in the eternal Art, and therefore can only be understood as a whole. While the pagan philosopher allows himself to be enchanted by the beauty of creatures, the Christian philosopher sees them as signs that point to the creative hand of God.15

According to the Saint, therefore, true philosophy cannot begin without Christ, who is its object, and it cannot finish without Him, because He is its end. Although he was aware of the distinction, he did not conceive of the possibility of a philosophy separate from theology. And the great masters of theology and of all human sciences are Christ our Lord16 and Mary, the Mother of God.17

St. Thomas took the opposite approach to philosophical demonstration, starting from the observation of visible realities. To this end, he assimilated the philosophy of Aristotle and succeeded in explaining the theses of Christian Revelation on this rational basis. St. Bonaventure, however, did not approve of this method and once told his Dominican friend that it diluted the pure wine of the Gospel with the water of pagan philosophy. The Angelic Doctor replied that, in reality, he was turning water into wine.

While St. Thomas’ theology shows the demonstrability of Revelation’s theses by the light of reason, St. Bonaventure begins with the contemplation of Christ to understand visible realities
“St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas before the crucifix”, by Francisco de Zurbarán

It is said that during a visit to St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas asked him which book he consulted to produce such marvels of thought. The humble Franciscan friar pointed to a crucifix.18

The prince of mystics

On the fourth day of creation, “God made the two great lights” (Gn 1:16) to preside over day and night. So too, in the 13th century, He illuminated the day of reason and the night of contemplation with two great luminaries, whose brilliance has spanned history and enlightened Catholic theology to this day.

While the theology of St. Thomas aims to show the demonstrability of Revelation’s theses by the light of reason, St. Bonaventure is bolder in his claims. Let the Seraphic Doctor explain his programme at the beginning of his masterpiece, Journey of the Mind into God:

“Therefore to the groan of praying through Christ crucified, through whose Blood we are purged from the filth of vice, I indeed first invite the reader, lest perhaps he believes that reading without unction, speculation without devotion, investigation without admiration, circumspection without exultation, industry without piety, knowledge without charity, understanding without humility, study apart from divine grace, gaze apart from divinely inspired wisdom is sufficient for him.”19

At length, he concludes the writing with these fiery words:

“If you seek to know in what manner these things occur, ask grace, not doctrine, desire, not understanding; the groaning of prayer, not the study of books; the spouse, not the teacher; God, not man, darkness, not brightness. Ask not the light, but the wholly inflaming fire that carries one into God with overwhelming unctions and burning affections. This fire is God himself, and its furnace is in Jerusalem, and it is Jesus Christ who ignites it with the fervour of His most ardent Passion.”20

St. Bonaventure’s Theology is not separate from contemplation, and for this reason few have the courage to follow in the footsteps of the prince of mystics, in the felicitous affirmation of Leo XIII.21 In fact, the Seraphic Doctor reminds us, quoting the prophet Daniel (cf. Dan 9:23), that no one can enter this path without being a “vir desideriorum – a man of desires.”22

Twin brothers in Christ

Despite an apparent contradiction, St. Thomas and St. Bonaventure both contributed to elaborate the perfect synthesis between reason and faith that is the glory of medieval Scholasticism. While their love for the doctrine of the Faith united them, it did not prevent them from disagreeing on their methods of contemplating the truth. The debates between the two ceased, however, due to a singular fact.

St. Thomas once paid a visit to St. Bonaventure to discuss some points of doctrine. When he arrived, he found the Franciscan friar in ecstasy before the Crucifix. Blood gushed forth from Our Lord’s side into the mouth of St. Bonaventure, who drank it. From then on, the Angelic Doctor never argued with his friend again, not because they agreed, but out of respect for Christ.23

Both of them had a prophetic mission in the history of the Church: to establish the theological and philosophical foundations of Catholic doctrine, so that it could weather all the storms until the end of the world. Even today, modern and atheist philosophies, before they are even born, find their refutation already written in the wise words of these two great Doctors of medieval Scholasticism.

After all, such was their union that God took them to himself in the same year, 1274. Thus, in this year 2024, we celebrate seven hundred and fifty years since their entry into eternity.

St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure “complement each other like the two sides of an ogive,” supporting the cathedral of Christian wisdom
At left and right, respectively, St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas – Cathedral of Seville (Spain); in background, interior of Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris

In the bull proclaiming St. Bonaventure a Doctor of the Universal Church, Pope Sixtus V declared that he and St. Thomas were like “the two olive trees and the two candlesticks that stand before the Lord” (Rv 11:4), who together “enlighten the whole Church” as “twin brothers in Christ.”24 And Gilson writes that “the philosophy of St. Thomas and the philosophy of St. Bonaventure are complementary, as the two most comprehensive interpretations of the universe as seen by Christians, and it is because they are complementary that they never either conflict or coincide.”25 In fact, as Dr. Plinio observes, the two “complement each other like the two sides of an ogive,”26 supporting the cathedral of Christian wisdom. ◊



1 The expression comes from Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the architect who designed St. Peter’s Square (cf. LAVIN, Irving. Bernini at St. Peter’s: Singularis in Singulis, in Omnibus Unicus. In: TRONZO, William [Ed.]. St. Peter’s in the Vatican. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005, p.151).

2 CORRÊA DE OLIVEIRA, Plinio. Talk. São Paulo, 15/11/1957.

3 Cf. BETTONI, OFM, Efrem. Nothing for Your Journey. Chicago: Franciscan Herald, 1959, p.24.

4 Cf. Idem, ibidem.

5 ST. ANSELM OF CANTERBURY. Proslogion, c.I.

6 Cf. BENEDICT XVI. General Audience, 17/3/2010.

7 Cf. BETTONI, op. cit., p.53.

8 This reflection is based on: GILSON, Étienne. The Philosophy of St. Bonaventure. Paterson (NJ): St. Anthony Guild, 1965, p.127-146.

9 ST. BONAVENTURE. Itinerário da mente para Deus, Prólogo, n.1. In: Obras escolhidas. Porto Alegre: Escola Superior de Teologia São Lourenço de Brindes, 1983, p.165.

10 Cf. ST. BONAVENTURE. I Sent., d.27, pars II, art. unicus, q.3, resp.

11 Cf. ST. BONAVENTURE. In Hexaemeron, coll.I, n.13.

12 Cf. Idem, n.11.

13 Idem, ibidem.

14 Idem, n.10.

15 Cf. GILSON, op. cit., p.195-198.

16 Cf. ST. BONAVENTURE. Cristo, único Mestre de todos. In: Obras escolhidas, op. cit., p.221-232.

17 Cf. GOFF, J. Isaac. Mulier Amicta Sole: Bonaventure’s Preaching on the Marian Mode of the Incarnation and Marian Mediation in His Sermons on the Annunciation. In: MCMICHAEL, Steven J.; SHELBY, Katherine Wrisley (Eds.). Medieval Franciscan Approaches to the Virgin Mary. Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2019, p.55.

18 Cf. COSTELLOE, OFM, Laurence. Saint Bonaventure. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1911, p.93.

19 ST. BONAVENTURE. Itinerário da mente para Deus, Prólogo, n.4, op. cit., p.166.

20 Idem, c.VII, n.6, p.203.

21 Cf. LEO XIII. Allocution, 11/10/1890.

22 ST. BONAVENTURE. Itinerário da mente para Deus, Prólogo, n.3, op. cit., p.166.

23 Cf. D’ALBI, OFM Cap, Jules. Saint Bonaventure et les luttes doctrinales de 1267-1277. Tamines-Paris: Duculot-Roulin; A. Giraudon, 1923, p.10.

24 SIXTUS V. Triumphantis Hierusalem.

25 GILSON, op. cit., p.449.

26 CORRÊA DE OLIVEIRA, Plinio. Talk. São Paulo, 4/8/1990.



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