San Giovanni da Capestrano

Saint John of Capestrano was a Franciscan friar and Catholic priest. Famous as a preacher, theologian, and inquisitor, he earned himself the nickname 'the Soldier Saint' when in 1456 at age 70, he led the last Crusade.


On 24 june 1386 in Capestrano, Abruzzo, a baby was born to a German baron who had married a girl of the local D'Amico family, to whom the name of John was given in honour of St John the Baptist, celebrated on that very day. Being fair-haired, he was called by the local people "Giantudesco"; later in life he would write: "My hair, which looked like golden threads - I kept them long after the fashion of my country."

St. John of Capestrano 1

Since early childhood John had a very good education and at 18 went to Perugia to study Law. While he was away during a local feud his brothers were killed and the houses of his father and mother destroyed. When John finished his studies, King Ladislaw of Durazzo appointed him as counsellor to the Royal Court of Justice in Naples. He was sent as an ambassador to the Malatesta, who imprisoned him in the castle of Brufa. He tried to escape, was caught and thrown into a cell, secured by a chain to the wall and with his feet in the water.

After three days in prison, St Francis appeared to him and arose his religious vocation. After paying a ransom he was set free and went back to Capestrano to dissolve a promise of marriage he had made to a Capestranese girl, renounced all his possessions and in 1415 entered the Monteripido monastery near Perugia to become a Franciscan friar.

St. John of Capestrano 2

In Fiesole St. Bernardine of Siena, who advocated a reform of the Church in the name of Jesus, became his spiritual guide. "Giantudesco" openly defended Bernardino when, because of his devotion to the Name of Jesus, the Sienese saint was accused of heresy. He, too, took as an emblem the monogram of Christ the King in his hard-fought battles against heretics and infidels. The Pope appointed him "Inquisitor of the Fraticelli", and sent him as his ambassador to Austria, Bavaria, Poland, where the Hussite scourge was growing. In the Holy Land promoted the union of the Armenian church with Rome.

He became a great preacher and travelled widely through Italy and Europe to build monasteries in honor of St. Francis. In L'Aquila he started the construction of a hospital and, after St Bernardine's death, promoted the building of a Church in honor of his spiritual guide, and began the construction of a convent in Capestrano in 1447.

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In 1451 Pope Callisto III entrusted to him the mission to contact all the nations of Europe to raise funds and build an army to stop the Turkish invasion. He was at the head of the Crusaders near Belgrade on 22 July 1456 when the Turkish army was defeated. For eleven days and nights he never left the battlefield. But this was to be his last feat. Three months later, on October 23, he died in Villach (near present-day Ylohk, Croatia), handing over to his faithful the wooden Cross, with the emblem of Christ the King, which is still preserved in L'Aquila.

Before dying he asked that his books and personal possessions should be brought back to Capestrano, where they are still kept in a library that Countess Cabella da Celano built especially for him.

The worship

On 16 October 1690 he was made a saint and Cosimo III, Grandduke of Tuscany and Prince of Capestrano, donated the Abruzzese town a silver bust of the Saint, presently kept in the Convent. In 1984 St John of Capestrano was made the patron of military chaplains all over the world. He is commemorated on October 23, the date of his death. In paintings he is one of the two saints who are represented with the coat of arms of Christ the King: St Bernardino from Siena, showing the emblem on a tablet of wood, which he raised on all the squares as a symbol of freedom and a pledge of peace, while St. John of Capestrano, brought the emblem on a flag on a battlefield.

Mission San Juan Capistrano and the Swallows

San Juan Capistrano is one of the first Franciscan missions in California, where a local tradition called "miracle of the Swallows" is repeated each year: on March 19th, St. Joseph’s Day, the faithful little birds wing their way back to the mission, and there is a "fiesta" with visitors from all over, to witness the return of the swallows.

At dawn the birds arrive and begin rebuilding their mud nests, clinging to the ruins of the Great Stone Church of San Juan Capistrano, whose roof collapsed during an earthquake in 1812; but the Church continues to house the birds that St. Francis loved so much.

After the summer the swallows take flight again, and on the Day of San Juan, October 23rd, they leave to spend the winter in warmer climates.

Art - The polyptych

St. John of Capestrano appears in a fine altarpiece on wood (cm. 177 x 193), "St. John of Capestrano and stories of his life". The polyptych consists of five separate panels that were reassembled precisely only in 1948, and preserved originally in the Basilica of St. Bernardino in L'Aquila, afterwards in the National Museum of Abruzzo, L'Aquila, and after the 2009 earthquake in the Morronese Abbey, Sulmona. The altarpiece has in a central panel the figure of St. John of Capestrano, in gray habit, holding a crusader's banner - white flag with a red cross - with St. Bernardine's monogram.


    The four side panels represent scenes of the saint's life [counter-clockwise]:
  • in the upper left panel, Holy Mass celebrated on the battle field in the presence of the Crusaders
  • below it, the Battle of Belgrade, where the Crusaders fought against the Turks
  • in the top right panel, a sermon given by St. John in L'Aquila, during which some possessed people were healed. in the background is the Cathedral of St. Maximus, as it would appear before the catastrophic earthquake of 1703 that destroyed it almost completely.
  • in the lower right panel, the death of the saint.

The panel, dated between 1480 and 1485 (and then just thirty years after the death of the saint) was first attributed to Sebastiano di Cola from Casentino; later on, to a "Maestro delle Storie di S. Giovanni da Capestrano", who also authored "St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata", stored in the same room of the museum. According to the latest studies, this Maestro should be identified with Giovanni di Bartolomeo from Aquila, as recorded in Naples by a notary deed of June 1448: this painter shows a Gothic formation in his meticulous attention to detail, and a Renaissance influence in the use of perspective and volumes.

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