The strange case of the Flying Monks


All of us are familiar with the fictional figure of the Superhero. They are fictional characters that usually have superhuman powers and that for these special characteristics goes beyond the figure of a conventional hero. They emerged in the late 1930s and were the stars of the US comic book. Many of these superheroes have a power that many of us have dreamed of: they can fly. Superman, Super girl, Wonder Woman, Storm, Human Torch or Iron Man with his armor are some of the flying superheroes, however this idea is not new. More than 600 years earlier, in 13th century Italy, flying superheroes have already proliferated. They were members of the clergy who helped their fellow men taking advantage of their ability to fly. The exploits of the flying monks seemed to be famous in their time, so that various painters immortalized them in paintings and altarpieces. To show that they came flying to aid their neighbor, they were painted without the lower limbs that were hidden by a kind of cloud, which we do not know if it helped them propel themselves. The first of the Flying Monks, Blessed Agostino Novello (1240-1309), from a Catalan family settled in Palermo, was carefully educated and studied law in Bologna. He was adviser to Manfredo, king of Sicily and together with this king he participated in the battle against Carlos de Anjou. Wounded in the war, he was left for dead and abandoned on the battlefield. The experience was so traumatic that he renounced the world and entered the Augustinian Order as a lay brother. Due to a series of circumstances, over the years it became known that he was a great jurist, he defended the interests of his convent and he did it so well that he was forced to receive priestly orders and Pope Nicholas II appointed him General of the Order, becoming a papal legacy, among other charges. However, in 1300 he gave up all his charges to live as a hermit near Siena. Agostino Novello dedicated himself to caring for the poor, elderly and sick without financial means during the last years of his life. Once deceased, miracles began to be attributed to him in which he is considered one of the Flying Monks. The triptych in which his mighty flights are seen is the work of Simone Martini in 1328. Apparently, the deceased monk had the habit of flying over his city, watching over and helping his fellow citizens. Like any Superhero! In the Triptych we can see four of the miracles that came flying. In the first on the left we see the miracle of the boy who was bitten by a wolf and whom the blessed helps and heals from bites. Arriving fast, flying, appearing behind a tower. On the right we find him lending help to a traveling neighbor who had fallen from the horse and had been crushed by it. Apparently he discovers him on one of his surveillance flights through the mountains. In the lower left, flying again, rescue an infant who had fallen from a balcony in flight and lastly, in the lower right, the largest among the Flying Monks heals a baby who had fallen from his crib. The mother invokes her from the window requesting her help and she arrives flying to restore the child’s health. Blessed Raniero de Sansepolcro (about 1250-1309) Blessed Raniero de Sansepolcro was a Franciscan friar who lived in Borgo Sansepolcro, in Italy between the middle of the 13th century and the beginning of the 14th. He gave his life to the poor as a doorman and almsman in the Order of Friars Minor, which made the whole town feel great affection and gratitude for him. When he died in 1309, the town erected a large altar for him that can still be seen in the Church of San Francisco in the town of Borgo Sansepolcro. Among the miracles attributed to him is the resurrection of two newborn children, which is why he is considered a protector of women during childbirth. But he is also known for being one of the famous Flying Monks. Raniero de Sansepolcro is famous for one of its specific flights. Apparently he came flying to help and visit the poor that he always favored and who were in the Florence prison. Once there, he took the opportunity to free 90 of them. The work in which this feat of Raniero is recreated is the work of Sassetta and was painted between 1437 and 1444, long after the monk passed away. San José de Cupertino (1603-1663) Centuries later, we still find Flying Monks, although they no longer do so as in the Middle Ages. In the case of José de Cupertino, a Neapolitan friar, he did so through levitation. It was not the only mystical phenomenon of bodily character related to him. Because of this ability, he has become a patron of air travelers, aviators, and cosmonauts. During his life more than seventy cases of levitation were recorded and he levitated before Pope Urban VIII. Historians believe that the case of the Flying Monks during the Middle Ages in Italy was nothing more than an attempt by various populations to get deceased godly men first to be beatified and then sanctified. Having the relics of a saint meant a large inflow of money for a population. Apparently various artists would have been commissioned to paint the miracles of future saints and they would have thought that nothing better than flying monks, saviors of children, the poor and travelers. In the case of the first two, the pope of the moment only beatified them and they did not become saints.