Elias of Cortona, Minister General of the Friars Minor, b., it is said, at Bevilia near Assisi, c. 1180; d. at Cortona, April 22, 1253. In the writings of Elias that have come down to us he styles himself “Brother Elias, Sinner”, and his contemporaries without exception call him simply “Brother Elias“. The name of a town was first added to his name in the fourteenth century; in Franciscan compilations like the “Chronica XXIV generalium and the “Liber Conformitaturn” Elias is described as Helias de Assisio, whereas the name of Cortona does not appear in connection with his before the seventeenth century. It is clear in any event that Elias did not belong to the noble family of Coppi as some have asserted. From Salimbene, who knew Elias well, we learn that his family name was Bonusbaro or Bonibarone, that his father was from the neighborhood of Bologna, and his mother an Assisian; that before becoming a friar Elias worked at his father’s trade of mattress-making and also taught the children of Assisi to read the Psalter. Later on, according to Eccleston, Elias was a scriptor, or notary, at Bologna, where no doubt he applied himself to study. But he was not a cleric and never became a priest. Elias appears to have been one of the earliest companions of St. Francis of Assisi. The time and place of his joining the saint are uncertain; it may have been at Cortona in 1211, as Wadding says. Certain it is, however, that he held a place of prominence among the friars from the first. After a short sojourn, as it seems, in Tuscany, Elias was sent in 1217 as head of a band of missionaries to Palestine, and two years later he became the first provincial of the then extensive province of Syria. It was in this capacity that he received Caesar of Speyer into the order. Although we are ignorant of the nature or extent of Elias‘s work in the East, it would seem that the three years he spent there made a deep impression upon him. In 1220-21 Elias returned to Italy with St. Francis, who showed further confidence in him by naming him to succeed Peter of Cataneo (d. March 10, 1221) as vicar-general of the order. Elias had held this office for five years when Francis died (October 3, 1226), and he then became charged with the responsibilities of the moment and the provisional government of the Friars Minor. After announcing the death of Francis and the fact of the Stigmata to the order in a beautiful letter, and superintending the temporary burial of the saint at San Giorgio, Elias at once began to lay plans for the erection of a great basilica at Assisi, to enshrine the remains of the Poverello. To this end he obtained a donation, with the authority of the pope, of the so-called Collis Inferni at the western extremity of the town, and proceeded to collect money in various ways to meet the expenses of the building. Elias thus alienated the zealots in the order, who felt entirely with St. Francis upon the question of poverty, so that at the chapter held in May, 1227, Elias was rejected in spite of his prominence, and Giovanni Parenti, provincial of Spain, was elected second general of the order.
Thenceforth Elias devoted all his energies to raising the basilica in honor of St. Francis. The first stone was laid July 17, 1228, the day following the saint’s canonization, and the work advanced with such incredible speed that the lower church was finished within twenty-two months. It was consecrated May 25, 1230, the hurried, secret, and still unexplained translation of St. Francis’s body thither from San Giorgio planned by Elias having taken place a few days previously, before the general and other friars assembled for the purpose were present. Soon after this, though there is some difference of opinion as to the exact date, Elias attempted, as it seems by a kind of coup de main, to depose Parenti and seize the government of the order by force, but the attempt failed. He thereupon retired to a distant hermitage, where we are told he allowed his beard and hair to grow, wore the vilest habit, and to all appearances led a most penitential life. However this may be, Elias was elected to succeed Parenti as general at the chapter in 1232, magic tumultuose quam canonice, as a contemporary chronicler expresses it; and he continued to govern the Friars Minor for nearly seven years. During that period the order was passing through one of the crises of its earlier development. It is well known (see Order of Friars Minor Conventuals) that even during the lifetime of St. Francis a division had shown itself in the ranks of the friars, some being for relaxing the rigor of the rule, especially as regards the observance of poverty, and others for adhering to its literal strictness. The conduct of Elias after his election as general helped to widen this breach and fan the flames of discord in the order. In arbitrary fashion he refused to convene a chapter or to visit any of the provinces, but sent in his place “visitors”, who acted rather as tax collectors—for Elias‘s chief need was money to complete the church and convent of S. Francesco—thus not only violating the rule himself, but causing others to do so also. In many other respects Elias abused his authority, receiving unworthy subjects into the order and confiding the most important offices to ignorant lay brothers, and when several of the early and most venerated companions of Francis withstood his high-handed methods, they were dealt with as mutineers, some being scourged, others exiled or imprisoned. Elias‘s manner of life made his despotism more intolerable. It seems to have been that of a powerful baron rather than of a mendicant friar. We are told that he gathered about him a household of great splendor, including secular lackies, dressed in the gayest liveries, that he kept “a most excellent cook” for his exclusive use, that he fared sumptuously, wore splendid garments, and made his journeys to different courts on fine palfreys with rich trappings. Because of these excesses, which threatened the complete destruction of the rule, the opposition to Elias became widespread. It was organized by Aymon of Faversham, who, in conjunction with other provincials from the North, determined to have him removed, and appealed to Gregory IX. Elias excommunicated the appellants and sought to prevent their reception by the pope. But Gregory received them and, in spite of Elias, summoned a chapter at Rome. Elias resisted to the utmost and strove to browbeat his accusers, but Gregory called on him to resign. He refused to do so, and was thereupon deposed by the pope, the English provincial, Albert of Pisa, being elected general in his stead. This was in 1239.
After his deposition, Elias, who still kept the titles of Custos of the Assisian Basilica and Master of the Works, seems to have busied himself anew for a time at the task of completing the church and convent of S. Francesco, but subsequently retired to Cortona. Refusing to obey either the general or the pope, Elias now openly transferred his allegiance to Frederick II, and we read of him in 1240 with the emperor’s army, riding on a magnificent charger at the siege of Faenza and at that of Ravenna. Some two years before this Elias had been sent by Gregory IX as an ambassador to Frederick. He now became the supporter of the excommunicated emperor in his strife with Rome and was him self excommunicated by Gregory. It is said that Elias afterwards wrote a letter to the pope explaining his conduct and asking pardon, and that this letter was found in the tunic of Albert of Pisa after the latter’s death. Aymon of Faversham, who had been the principal opponent of Elias, and who was elected general in succession to Albert, having died in 1244, a chapter was thereupon convened at Genoa. Elias was summoned by Innocent IV to attend it, but he failed to appear. Some say that the papal mandate never reached him. Be this as it may, Elias was excommunicated anew and expelled from the order. The news of his disgrace spread quickly “to the great scandal of the Church“, and the very children might be heard singing in the streets:
“Hor attorna fratt’ Helya
Ke pres’ ha la mala via”,
a couplet which met the friars at every turn, so that the very name of Elias became hateful to them. It was about this time that Elias was sent by Frederick II on an important diplomatic mission to Constantinople and Cyprus. When not employed by the emperor, Elias resided at Cortona with a few friars who had remained faithful to him. He dwelt for a time in a private house there, still known as the casa di frate Elia, but in January, 1245, the people of Cortona, for whom he had obtained sundry privileges in the past, presented him with a piece of ground called the Bagno delta Regina, and helped him to erect thereon the splendid church and convent dedicated to St. Francis.
Soon after Blessed Giovanni da Parma became general in 1247, he sent Fra Gerardo da Modena to Cortona to beg Elias to submit, promising that he would be treated with the utmost clemency. But Elias, who seems on the one hand to have feared imprisonment by the pope and on the other to have been unwilling to renounce the favor of Frederick II, declined. During Passiontide, 1253, the lonely old man,—for Elias had lost his protector by Frederick’s death in 1250—fell seriously ill. We learn from the sworn testimony of several witnesses that Bencius, Archpriest of Cortona, recognizing at once the gravity of Elias‘s condition and the reality of his repentance, absolved him on Holy Saturday, April 19; that two days later Elias received Holy Communion at the hands of Fra Diotefece, but that he could not be anointed, since, Cortona being then under interdict, no holy oil was to be found. On Easter Tuesday Elias died, reconciled indeed with the Church, but outside the order. He was buried at Cortona in the church he had built, which two years later—his followers having returned to obedience—passed into the hands of the order. But Elias‘s bones were not suffered to rest at S. Francesco, for a later guardian dug them up and flung them out.
Elias is perhaps the most difficult character to estimate in all Franciscan history. In the first place it is wellnigh impossible, with the documents at our disposal, to obtain even a clear idea of his chequered career. There is no contemporary life of Elias, and, with the exception of Celano’s “Vita Prima”, which is said to have been written under the influence of Elias, none of the early biographies of St. Francis make any allusion to him. In the second place, considerable bias has to be reckoned with in what is recorded of Elias in later works, especially in the writings of the Zelanti, which are often influenced less by historical considerations than by party spirit. Many stories have gathered around the life of Elias which are largely inventions. Yet these fictions have been indiscriminately reproduced by subsequent writers, with the result that Elias has come to be depicted by too many modern biographers of St. Francis as a traitor to his master’s interests, as a mere tool of the Curia in transforming the order and destroying the manner of life intended by the Poverello. But if some have branded Elias as another Judas, others, going to the opposite extreme, have not hesitated to call him the St. Paul of St. Francis. Laying undue stress on some words of St. Antoninus, they have sought to exculpate Elias altogether, to justify his conduct at all hazards, even where it is wholly unjustifiable; they would fain make him appear as a second founder of the order, to whose ability its great success was mainly due. It is just because so few have written calmly about Elias that it becomes additionally difficult to form a just estimate of the real motives which guided him. He has been too much abused and too much lauded. Between the two extremes it seems necessary, if we would judge with fairness, to distinguish two periods in the life of Elias, namely, before the death of St. Francis and after it. In spite of the account of Elias‘s early pride and frowardness given by the “Fioretti”—which may be set aside as a picturesque slander introduced for artistic effect, there is nothing to show that Elias was other than a good religious during the lifetime of St. Francis, else it is hard to understand how the latter could have entrusted him with so much responsibility, and how he could have merited the special deathbed blessing of the Poverello. On the other hand that Elias really loved St. Francis there can be no doubt, and so far as we have means of ascertaining there never was any breach between them. At the same time it would be difficult to imagine two characters more widely different than Elias and St. Francis. Their religious ideals were as far apart as the poles. The heroic ideal of poverty and detachment which the Poverello conceived for his friars Elias regarded as exaggerated and unpractical. Hence, while St. Francis did not desire large loci for his friars, Elias multiplied spacious convents. Again, Elias‘s views with regard to learning among the friars were very far removed from those of St. Francis. “Hoc solum habuit bonum frater Helias”, writes Salimbene, “quia Ordinem fratrum Minorum ad studium theologiae promovit.” But Elias did more than this. In particular the extension of the Franciscan missions among the infidels owes more to his work than is commonly admitted. For the rest, Elias was no doubt guided throughout by what he thought to be the glory of the order. On the other hand it would be idle to deny that Elias was utterly lacking in the true spirit of his master. Ambition was Elias‘s chief fault. So long as he remained under the influence of Francis his ambition was curbed, but when he came to govern, forgetting his own past life, the example of St. Francis, and the obligations of his office, Elias so far allowed ambition to dominate him that when it was thwarted he had not the humility to submit, but, reckless of consequences, plunged to his ruin.
It is no doubt owing to his fall and disgrace that in an order so prolific in early biographies Elias remained so long without a biographer. It would be difficult, however, to exaggerate the importance of his influence upon the history of the Franciscan Order. Even his opponents conceded that Elias possessed a remarkable mind, and none doubted his exceptional talents. “Who in the whole of Christendom“, asks Eccleston, “was more gracious or more famous than Elias?” Matthew of Paris dwells on the eloquence of his preaching, and Bernard of Besse calls him one of the most erudite men in Italy. We know that good as well as great men sought the friendship of Elias, and, strange as it may seem, he appears to have retained the confidence of St. Clare and her companions.
Nothing that can really be called a portrait of Elias remains, Giunta Pisano’s picture of him “taken from life” in 1236 having disappeared in 1624; but a seventeenth-century replica in the Municipio at Assisi is believed to have been more or less copied from it. In the latter, Elias is represented as a small, spare, dark-haired man, with a melancholy face and trim beard, and wearing an Armenian cap. With the exception of his letter to the order announcing the death of Francis, no writing of Elias has come down to us; several works dealing with alchemy, formerly circulated under his name, are undoubtedly supposititious. Whether or not Elias was himself the architect of S. Francesco, the fact remains that if the tomb of the Poverello has become the “cradle of the Renaissance“, the “first flower and the fairest of Italian Gothic”, and the glory of Assisi, it is to Elias we owe this, and it constitutes his best monument.