Jacopone Benedetti was a prosperous lawyer in the Umbrian town if Todi. His life took a tragic turn one day when his young wife was killed in an accident. This terrible loss was compounded by the belated discovery of his wife’s piety. As she lay dying before his eyes, he loosened her gown and was surprised and deeply moved to find that she wore a secret hair shirt, a penance he believed she must have undertaken to atone for her own sins.
His world in ruins and his ambitions laid bare, Jacopone quit his profession, gave away all his belongings, and became a public penitent- to all appearances, a kind of wandering fool. For ten years he maintained this life of aimless poverty and penance. Then, at the age of forty-eight, he knocked on the door of the Franciscans and applied for admission.
Remarkably, in joining the Franciscans he also found a new voice as a poet – indeed, one of the great lyric poets of the Middle Ages. In the passionate language of love, his mystical poems described the soul’s yearning for Christ. But they retained a mournful undertone, the accent of a faith born in loss. Among his most famous poems is the Stabat Mater Dolorosa, a heart-breaking meditation on the sorrows of Mary at the foot of the cross.
At the cross her station keeping,
Stood the mournful Mother weeping,
Close to Jesus to the last:
Through her heart, His sorrow sharing,
All His bitter anguish bearing,
Now at length the sword had passed.
Jacopone was a leader of the Spirituals, a Franciscan party dedicated to the most radical form of apostolic poverty. The Spirituals ran into conflict with the worldly Pope Boniface VIII, whose legitimacy they challenged. After addressing a bitter manifesto to the pope, Jacopone was imprisoned for five years. Only after Boniface’s death was he freed to live out the rest of his life as a hermit. He died on Christmas day in 1306.