Jacopo Benedetti seems to have invented a peculiar way to lose his life for Christ in order to gain it. In 1268, Vanna, his beautiful wife of one year, was killed at a party when a balcony collapsed. That tragedy prompted Jacopo’s conversion to Christ that he first expressed in most unusual ways. A well-established attorney in Umbria, Italy, he renounced his profession. And for a decade Jacopo performed strange public penances in the streets of Todi. Once, for example, he crawled through the center of town wearing a donkey’s harness. Children made fun of him, calling him “Jacopone,” which means “Big Jimmy,” a nickname that stuck for life.
Perhaps Jacopone went temporarily insane because of his wife’s death. Or perhaps an overwhelming sense of sin accounts for his conduct. Or perhaps, as he says in the following poem, the unfathomable love of Christ overcame him with a divine “madness”:
Love [Jesus] is nailed on the cross, that has seized him and will not let him go. I go running to it and am nailed there too so that I cannot go astray, for to flee from it would make me disappear and not be inscribed among the beloved. O cross, I am hanging on you and am nailed to you, so that I, dying, may taste the life with which you are adorned. O honeyed death, sad for one who has not undergone it! O my soul, so burning to receive its wound that I may die with my heart overcome with love. O love of the lamb, greater than the wide sea, who can tell of you? Whoever is drowned in it and has it on all sides does not know where he is, and madness, walking driven mad with love, seems the straight way to him.
In 1278, Jacopone became a lay brother in a Franciscan community in Umbria. At the time a heated controversy divided the order between the Spirituals, who practiced a strict observance of St. Francis’s life pattern and the Conventuals, who took a moderated approach to the founder’s way. Jacopone became a spokesperson for the Spirituals. Apparently in good conscience, with pointed satire he vigorously opposed Pope Boniface VIII, the champion of the Conventuals. Thus, when the pope suppressed the Spirituals in 1297, Jacopone landed in prison, where he stayed six years.
While in jail, in contrast to his vitriolic satires, Jacopone composed lovely songs in his native Umbrian. For example, listen as he celebrates the love of Christ in this poem:
Sweet, incomparable love, you are, Christ, to love. You are the love that often joins friends who fight; you anoint every wound and cure it without ointment. Love, you do not abandon but pardon the one who offends you and crown with glory the one who knows how to humble himself. Great, sweet and delicate love, you are the uncreated divine, you who make the seraph flame with glory. Cherubim and other singers, apostles and doctors, virgins—you make them all happy. Patriarchs and prophets you draw from the devil’s net. They have such thirst for you, love, that it will never be slaked.
After Pope Boniface VIII died in 1303, Jacopone was released. He lived the rest of his life quietly at a convent of Poor Clares near Todi. He died there on Christmas Day in 1306.