Saints of the Day – James of the March

detail of a portrait of Beato Giacomo della Marca; by Pietro Perugino, 1512-15; tempera on canvas, Gallery of Umbria, Perugia, Italy; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsArticle

(also known as Giacomo della Marca or Jacopo Gangala)

Born in Montebrandone, March of Ancona, September 1, 1394; died in Naples 1475; canonized 1726.

You may have seen his portrait by Carlo Crivelli in the Louvre: an emaciated monk with a long, pointed nose reminiscent of Pinocchio. But long before his portrait was painted by Crivelli, it had been painted by God. For in his Book of Life God makes a picture of everything that He creates, and the true saints are those men and women who in their lives come closest to resembling God’s picture of them.

And so on September 1, 1394, God made the portrait of an Italian Franciscan whose zeal and enterprise would make him a good instrument to carry out God’s eternal purpose – the glorification of His name and the coming of His Kingdom.

At first this future Franciscan was just an ordinary little boy. He was born into a poor family living in Montebrandrone, a village in the Marches (the ancient Picenum) overlooking the Adriatic. He was baptized with the name of Dominic, and we can easily imagine him one day asking the priest the meaning of his name. When he heard the Dominic came from Dominus and meant “he who belongs to the Lord,” he must have thought that his name was a call, and that the call should be answered.

After studying law he answered it when, at age 22, he took the Franciscan habit in 1416. As he was to recall much later, his first habit was tailored for him by Father Bernardino of Siena. Dominic took a new name as well as a new habit. Perhaps he regretted losing his lordly name, but a new vocation demands a new name, and besides the name Dominic, being reminiscent of the Dominicans, might have given offense to some of his Franciscan brothers.

And so, emerging from the waters of his second baptism, Dominic became James. In accordance with Franciscan custom, he also took the name of the province from which he came; thus, he is called James della Marca (of the Marches). This fine-sounding name, half apostle and half traveller, was well-suited to a man for the next 50 years was to travel all over Europe spreading the good news of Jesus Christ.

Before beginning his wandering ministry, however, James studied for the priesthood under Saint Bernardino of Siena at Fiesole (outside Florence, Italy) and was ordained at age 29 (1423). He became a zealous and well-attended preacher and is said to have brought both Blessed Bernardino of Feltre and Blessed Bernardino of Fosso into the Franciscan Order.

Saint James preached every day for 40 years. It was his vocation to march, or rather to run, along the roads of Christendom, trying to be everywhere at once for he was needed everywhere at once. One day while at supper he was lifting his glass to take a drink when he was brought a message from Eugene IV sending him to Hungary. He put down his glass and left immediately.

It would take the patience of a Benedictine to reconstruct all his missionary journeys, including those undertaken with Saint John Capistrano throughout Italy, Germany, Bohemia, Poland, and Hungary. In 1426, with Saint John, he was named inquisitor against the Fraticelli by Pope Saint Martin V. Their approach was harsh – some of the Fraticelli were burned at the stake – and they destroyed 36 Fraticelli houses, provoking opposition.

The most we can do to tract the progress of this energetic Franciscan is just to mention a few of the places where he turned up. In 1432, he was in Bosnia, where King Tuertko received him with open arms and the queen tried to murder him. There he preached against the heresy of the Bogomils.

In 1436, James della Marca was in Bohemia, Hungary, and Austria, founding on an average one monastery a month. In 1437, he was the chief almoner for the crusade that emperor Sigismond was leading against the Turks. In 1438 he returned to Italy, made a brief appearance in Bologna, attended a council in Ferrara, and then went back to Hungary.

In 1440 he fell ill in Cyprus. In 1444 – a rare event – he spent three days resting in a little monastery on the shores of Lake Trasimene, where he was joined by John of Capistrano and Bernardine of Siena, who died a month later.

Succeeding Saint John Capistrano as papal legate in 1456, he went to Austria and Hungary to combat the Hussites. He was thereafter offered the bishopric of Milan, but turned it down because he preferred to continue preaching.

In 1462, as a result of a sermon he preached in Brescia in which he gave a theological opinion on the precious Blood of Christ, he himself became the subject of a local inquisition. The case was controversial and James refused to appear before the Inquisition and appealed to Rome. A silence was imposed upon both the Dominican inquisitors and the Franciscans, and no decision was ever reached.

And so on, always hurrying from place to place, always preaching and always fighting the good fight, until November 28, 1476, the date of his last journey, when he set out from Naples and arrived in heaven, where we have good reason to believe he still is.

Not surprisingly in view of the life he led, James della Marca did not put on much weight. Moreover he imposed on himself severe penances. He allowed himself only three hours of sleep nightly and wore a threadbare habit. He fasted every day and had, according to his biographer “a poor stomach and severe inflammation of the liver.” Towards the end of his life the pope forbade him to fast, for his health was “in the public interest.” It should be noted that Saint James was also a very strong supporter for the establishment of charitable pawnshops (montes pietatis).

The common sense of the good pope – Sixtus IV – is to be commended, ordering a saint to take care of his health, but even more admirable is the monk who set out every morning with his satchel containing a piece of bread, some beans, salt, garlic, and a few onions. He knew only too well that to be a witness of God among men it is far better to be full of the Holy Spirit than full of food.

And it was the Holy Spirit that inspired him to speak with such power and fire and amazing success. At Camerino he inflamed the townsfolk to such a point that they nearly burned his adversary alive. At Aquila 40,000 people waited for him to come down from the pulpit so that they could get what was then the equivalent of his autograph – a piece of parchment with the name of Jesus written on it. To meet the demand, the friars in the monastery had to mass-produce them and then give them to James to touch before distributing them among his admirers.

More enduring than these bonfires that are so easy to light under the hot Italian sun was his work as a peace-maker, for which he had a special gift. During the turbulent 15th century peace had disappeared nearly everywhere. James reconciled the conventuals and the observants, the two opposed branches of the Franciscans who were at loggerheads about their interpretations of the true spirit of their founder. He reconciled Catholics and heretics of every kind. For example, he moderated his opposition to the Hussites of Hungary by offering at the Council of Basle (part of the Council of Ferrara-Florence) the practice of Communion under both species (1431). At the Council of Florence (1438), he participated in the reunion of the Eastern and Western Churches. He reconciled Guelphs and Ghibellines who quarreled out of habit. Above all he reconciled men with God, which is surely the best way of reconciling men with each other.

In 1473, James was moved to Naples, where he died and was buried in the church of Santa Maria Nuova.

While nearly every day brought a different landscape before the eyes of Saint James della Marca, he gaze remained fixed unceasingly on the Eternal and Unchangeable. Popes, kings, and crowds called him, but in their call he always heard the same unique voice of God. Every evening he was breathless, yet each morning he preached because he had spent half the night breathing the Holy Spirit (Attwater, Attwater 2, Benedictines, Coulson, Encyclopedia, Farmer, White).

Saint James’ emblem is a chalice and a serpent. He is generally depicted as a Franciscan holding a chalice and a veil; sometimes the image includes a staff and lily; or staff, castanets at his girdle, pointing to IHS (not to be confused with Saint Bernardino, whose face, old and toothless, is invariable). Venerated at Ancona (Roeder, White).

MLA Citation

  • Katherine I Rabenstein. Saints of the Day, 1998. CatholicSaints.Info. 19 August 2020. Web. 27 November 2020. <>