The 13th-century saint, one of the greatest minds of the late medieval period, is at once a distant figure, his life dominated by the often obscure Church politics of the time, and yet part of a flourishing of thought that encompassed Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Bacon and Albert the Great, the thinking giants on whose shoulders Renaissance thinkers stood. It was a mental leap created by the Church but which, strangely, in the modern mind is seen as opposed to the Church.
Born in 1221 in Latium (now Lazio), then part of the Papal States, Bonaventure’s early life is unknown to us until he joined the Franciscans in his 22nd year. The order was relatively young – Francis had only died in 1226 – and it was partly due to Bonaventure’s wisdom and moderation that it would become the most dominant order of the late medieval period.
Studying at the University of Paris, he then held the Franciscan chair at Paris until disputes between members of the order and secular clergy forced him to delay his reception as Master (equivalent to doctor) for four years, taken at the same time as Aquinas.
The Franciscan mend-icants were not entirely popular in the Church, and having defended the order against its critics, he was elected Minister General of the order and in 1265 selected as Archbishop of Canterbury (although he lasted less than a year).
Bonaventure then helped to have Gregory X elected to the papacy, and although Blessed Gregory was a good man (he condemned the blood libel against the Jews and opened diplomatic communications with the Mongols) Bonaventure was rewarded by being made Cardinal Bishop of Albano.
His final achievement was Council of Lyon in 1274, one of the great missed opportunities of history, where the Eastern and Western Churches agreed to re-unite, a union later revoked by the Emperor Andronikos II. Had it not been for his parochialism Bonaventure’s fame may have been all the greater. As it is he died soon after, in suspicious circumstances, and certainly many within the Church believed him to be poisoned, although the exact motives can never be understood. But certainly no one could spend a lifetime engaged in Church politics during this period without making one or two enemies.
Despite the schism remaining, alas, to this day, Bonaventure’s contribution to learning was hugely significant, marrying St Augustine with Aristotle in his search for reason. Along with his contemporaries Aquinas and Bacon, he dominated Christian theology in that exciting period when western thought began to mature.
Canonised in 1484 by the Franciscan Pope Sixtus IV, and ranked alongside Thomas Aquinas as the greatest of the Doctors of the Church by another Franciscan, Pope Sixtus V, his greatest work was Commentary on the Sentences, a copy of which is now conserved at his parish church of St Nicholas in Bagnoregio, along with the only extant relic of the saint – the arm and hand with which he wrote his work.