The St. Francis Missal

The St. Francis Missal (W.75) is, at first glance, a seemingly humble manuscript. Bound in undecorated wood and leather, its cover is worm-eaten and cracked. As a missal (a book containing the texts used in the celebration of the Mass), it was primarily meant to be read from by the priest during the church service, and thus designed to be functional rather than lavish. Why, then, is this book one of the most intriguing in The Walters’ collection, as well as one of the most popular, visited by many from around the world each year?

The St. Francis Missal (W.75) is, at first glance, a seemingly humble manuscript.  Bound in undecorated wood and leather, its cover is worm-eaten and cracked. As a missal (a book containing the texts used in the celebration of the Mass), it was primarily meant to be read from by the priest during the church service, and thus  designed to be functional rather than lavish.  In all aspects of its production, it is a typical example of missals produced in Italy in the late 12th – early 13th century. Why, then, is this book one of the most intriguing in The Walters’ collection, as well as one of the most popular, visited by many from around the world each year?


Venetian (Artist) / Pages from The St. Francis Missal / 1172-1228 (Medieval) / Acquired by Henry Walters / Not on view

What makes this book exceptional is not how it was made, but who used it.  Evidence suggests that it is from this book that St. Francis of Assisi drew his source of inspiration for the founding principles of the Franciscan order of monks.  According to the chronicle of St. Francis’ life written by St. Bonadventure, the young Francis befriended Bernard of Quintavalle, a wealthy man who was wondering how he could best serve God.  Francis brought Bernard and another friend to the Church of San Niccolò nearby to seek council from God.  On the altar sat a missal, which Francis opened randomly to three pages, upon which he found what would later become the cornerstone of the Franciscan Rule:

“If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell what thou hast, and give to the poor.”

“Take nothing for your journey.”

“If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”

Upon finding these passages, Francis is said to have exclaimed, “This is our life and rule, and that of all that shall be minded to join our fellowship.  Do thou go, then, if thou wilt be perfect, and fulfil (sic) that which thou hast heard.”

Berto di Giovanni di Marco / "Saint Francis of Assissi" / ca. 1500-1510 (early Renaissance) / Acquired by Henry Walters with the Massarenti Collection, 1902
Berto di Giovanni di Marco / “Saint Francis of Assissi” / ca. 1500-1510 (early Renaissance) / Acquired by Henry Walters with the Massarenti Collection, 1902

There is still much controversy as to whether or not the Walters’ St. Francis Missal was the one that was actually opened by St. Francis.  Skeptics point out that references to the book used by St. Francis, such as the one in St. Bonadventure’s chronicle, describe it as a “book of the Gospels,” not a missal, and that the manuscript lacks what is widely believed to be the first of the passages that the saint is said to have found (Matthew 19:21).  Supporters of the book being the one used by St. Francis argue that book terminology was inconsistent in the medieval era, and thus “book of the Gospels” could just as well have referred to a missal, which contained the Gospel texts rearranged for use in the Mass.  Although the passage from Matthew is not present, it does contain Mark 10:21, the key phrase of which is nearly identical in Latin.  In addition, the book contains an inscription stating that it was dedicated to the church of San Niccolò, the same church that St. Francis visited.  There are other, more subjective things that point to this being the book used by the saint: the wood boards of the binding are early and in poor condition – perhaps the binding was not replaced because it was thought to have been touched by a saint.  Although we will never truly know whether or not the hands of the Saint ever touched this book, for many Franciscans around the world, there is strong enough evidence to warrant making pilgrimages to The Walters to see the book in person.

Perhaps it is the mystery surrounding the St. Francis Missal that makes it so compelling – if we had all the answers about it already, would it still captivate us the way it does? Let us know what you think in the comments section.

Please note that the St. Francis Missal is currently not on view.