Francis of Assisi and Iacopone da Todi are mystics and poets. Their mysticism permeates their lives and works and infuses an indelible imprint on their poetic achievements. Despite their opposing theological perspectives, their mysticism clearly displays a Franciscan matrix. The radical approach to religion which they share finds a justification in their historical roles at the beginning of the Franciscan Order, when the new mendicant concepts were still being forged and formulated. Both identify poverty as a primary asset, the crucial virtue that will open the way to ecstatic union. In the poetry of both, harmony features as a pivotal concept and coincides with a personal reappropriation of the atmosphere in Earthly Paradise.
The mythical stage of humanity, when nudity and silence characterized the lives of the first human beings, represents the goal of their theological (and anthropological) principles. From the early stages of humanity in Earthly Paradise the two Franciscan poets also borrow the concept of “two in one flesh” as a metaphor for the indelible love union between Anima and Christ. The unification of the two separate genders forges Francis's foundation of the two independent but complementary Orders, the Franciscans and the Poor Clares, and shapes the topos of matrimonial consummation in Iacopone's poetry.
The two mystics are aware that reaching back to the harmonious relationship of human beings with God is a theological operation, a reconstruction and a re-creation of an original status; the knowledge that human beings acquired after eating the “forbidden fruit” accompanies their attempt to reestablish that lost dimension and, in a sense, makes that lost status impossible to accomplish fully. They can revisit Earthly Paradise only through the experience of mystical union, thanks to Christian redemption, of which the crucifixion is the apex and the resolution. The nudity and silence toward which they strive appears as the common denominator of Earthly Paradise and the cross. Francis and Iacopone imitate at once the naked and silent Christ on the cross and Adam and Eve before the Fall. They try to reach the purity and innocence of the mythical, (p.194) unaware human beings in Earthly Paradise, by modeling their lives on the violently stripped and passively speechless crucified man. Two crucial moments of the biblical account, the Book of Genesis and the Passion, come together in the single icon of nudity and silence; from beginning to new beginning, the elimination of two most human qualities, clothes and speech, paradoxically produces a more spiritual human entity.
These ideas can be extrapolated from the hagiographic accounts of their lives as well as from their poetic works. But rhetoric is also an essential portion of the mysticism of both. Francis and Iacopone express new concepts, but they also display a new style and a new rhetoric that facilitate the acquisition of an original perception of divinity. Poverty and simplicity led them to consider reality from different angles and to view Christianity in a new light. They surpass the complexity of theological conceptualizations in order to recover some core concepts of Christianity. This process has purification as its final goal. While it eliminates all encumbering elements that may obscure the spirit, the purifying process sometimes brings on socially reprehensible behavior or exposes the uncouth, almost animalistic, side of humanity. In various episodes narrated by their hagiographers, Francis and Iacopone utilize histrionic, clownish techniques or act like animals.A fitting example is offered by Thomas of Celano, who reports that, during the preparation of the first manger scene, Francis mimicked the sound of a sheep. He began repeating the word “Bethlehem” aloud, and while he pronounced the name of Christ's birthplace, his enunciation acquired the connotation of a bleating lamb. As he was “burning with … the sweetness of the word,” the pronunciation of Bethlehem revealed to him a novel connection with the image of Christ-the-Lamb.1 Christ's sacrificial destiny is already inscribed in the name of his birthplace. The bleating of its phonetics discloses the prophecy of the Lamb of God, while the semantics of Bethlehem, literally “the house of bread,” likewise bears a highly symbolic significance as the birthplace of Christ, who will be identified with “the bread of life” in the Eucharist. The bleating sound emanating from Christ's birthplace marks the conjunction of the manger scene evoking his birth with the crucifixion that concludes his life. But the inarticulate ovine sound also elicits innocence and purity as two of the main symbolic referents of the lamb, a meek and submissive creature. These theological ideas are epitomized in Francis's buffoonish imitation of a lamb. His bleating eschews the complexity of human theological formulations and manifests his desire to be equal to an animal in the natural world.
(p.195) Iacopone also imitated animals, when he wore colorful feathers and disguised himself as a chicken at his brother's wedding. He simply wanted to mock the wedding party's superficial elegance and worldly love of external appearance, but the effect exceeded his intentions and involved highlighting the animal essence of humanity and his own personal attempt to regain the simplicity and poverty that characterize animal life.
The study of Francis's and Iacopone's poetry in light of their mystical experience evinces, among notable differences, shared features. A desire to reconsider humanity as comparable to all other creatures that inhabit the earth, an unceasing attempt to surpass purely verbal communication, and the drive to reevaluate nudity as privation of all unnecessary superstructures and embellishments that obscure the original beauty of human nature are the main ingredients of a reconstructed Earthly Paradise. While attempting to surpass the ambiguity of words, both Franciscan mystics divest themselves of all clothes and all words. They follow the pattern of humanity at the moment the Book of Genesis begins, and they act in the reversed order from Adam and Eve. Reaching the purity of the moment before the Fall in Earthly Paradise signifies the removal of any covering structure imposed at the beginning of history in order to go back to that prehistorical (or metahistorical) dimension. The two mystics do not remain naked and silent, but accept the hardships of a sackcloth habit, whose shape recalls the tor-turing sacrifice of the crucifixion, and in their histrionic actions reproduce inarticulate, animalistic sounds as rudimentary forms of communication. In their poetry the two Franciscans elevate their verses to the angelic harmony of music, in which words blend into chanting sounds and reproduce the wordless melodies of celestial bodies, as they were perceived in Earthly Paradise, before words and clothes covered and stifled all that was most essentially divine in humanity.