Did you even know there’s a patron saint of advertising? Yes, Catholics have a patron saint for just about everything. Well, everything legal. There’s no patron saint of pickpockets but there is a patron saint of advertising. Whew.
I love this system of patronage. If you’re in professional trouble, or better yet, if you just want to do more inspired work, you ask your patron saint to pray for you. The promise is they will.
Could the patron saint of advertising - San Bernardino da Siena - possibly help us do more inspired work? He doesn’t have a Linked-In profile but the colorful story of this talented man is “all over the Web.”
Do a quick search and you’ll find out he became a member of Saint Francis’s order and led a popular religious revival in 15th Century Italy. He was painted by El Greco holding the then controversial IHS symbol which he created. At his feet: three bishops hats – he turned down higher office three times, preferring to stay close to the streets where the action is. Just like a really good creative.
The Wikipedia article on his life makes him sound like an anti-Semitic homophobe and to a degree this may well reflect the times we live in – a certain anti-Catholic bigotry (“Jew-hating, queer-hating, neurotic, pedophiles, all of them!”) is quite the unfortunate fashion these days. But there may well be some truth in it as noted in the sober reflections of a candidate for the Franciscan order who reminds us that saints are complicated figures and sometimes carry with them signs of the times that need to be left behind. Pope John Paul II made an important recognition of this in his searing apology at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem for currents of anti-Semitism in the history of the Catholic Church. And today’s Pope, who adopted the name of San Bernardino’s order, Francis, importantly said about gay people who seek God, “Who am I to judge?”
San Bernardino’s biggest claim to fame is that he used the power of guerilla out of home to help end the brutal gang warfare that had swept through Italy in the early 15th century.
Two warring parties, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, had torn Italy in two. Cities declared war on other cities and it had become a custom for homes to display their allegiance to the Guelphs or the Ghibellines by displaying the symbol and colors of the parties on their homes. Just putting up the signs helped perpetuate the violence.
Imagine you’re living in that era in an Italian village and it’s just before lunch time. Everyone is out on the streets getting their last-minute errands done. Along comes a wizardly-looking, tall itinerant preacher wearing nothing but the rags, rope and sandals of the begging Franciscans. He’s carrying a banner at the end of a tall stick, waving it slowly back and forth. It looks like some kind of important and magical symbol. A blazing sun with three letters in the center of it: IHS.
“What is this symbol? How can it change your life? What secret have you ignored?” the preacher teasingly asks and then promises, “I am Bernardino da Siena: come to the Piazza at dawn tomorrow and all will be revealed.”
The local priest never managed to attract such attention. What was Bernardino talking about? And how about that beautiful symbol? It all sounded very interesting and Bernardino attracted huge crowds – including a large number of envious local priests and some members of the Dominican order who were prosecuting the Inquisition (think of them as mid-level managers checking to make sure that “Brand standards” are being followed).
The symbol was gorgeous and mysterious. San Bernardino had tapped into the pop culture of the time in order to create it. He crusaded against the love of gambling and its related industry, loan sharks, in early 15th century. The playing cards created at the time were especially beautiful and still command high prices among collectors today.
One of Bernardino’s converts was an artist who specialized in this trade. “What do I do now?” he asked Bernardino. Bernardino prayed for him and inspiration came.
Bernardino would preach to the crowds he gathered and he would make them laugh and cry, think and feel deeply. Eyewitness accounts record that he never gave the same sermon twice, always adapting his “content” to the locale, to the moment, to the feeling in the air. But he would consistently make his listeners see that they were living lives dedicated to dissolute pleasure, prideful arrogant behavior and a contempt for all things holy. Including the name of Jesus, used then – as now – as just as another swear word. “But this is the name of the Son of God who died on the Cross as an act of pure love! His Name is Holy! It chases away demons and converts hearts. Here it is as the Apostles recorded it in Greek: IHS.”
And he would hold up the fantastically-drawn sun which looked like a perfect playing card symbol, coruscating brilliantly. He often succeeded at timing this dramatic gesture with the first rays of the Sun so that the symbol would blaze on the public square where he preached. “Go home, change your lives, tear down the signs of hate you have fixed over your doors, Guelph and Ghilbelline! Place instead the Holy Name of Jesus!”
Suddenly, an out-of-work card artist had a whole new livelihood. Swearing began to fall out of fashion. And displaying gang colors became seen for what it was: a vector of hatred and violence.
But every innovator has his envious critics. And in 1527 he was summoned to Rome to stand trial for heresy. Envious Dominicans had lodged a complaint that Bernardino was using the profane arts to bewitch the population and that people were more in love with this art than they were with the Savior. Bernardino defended himself brilliantly. Pope Martin V listened and gave his judgment. He required that Bernardino revise his symbol so that it carried the Cross on it. Like deciding that teaser advertising should be branded rather than blind. Martin V was so impressed by Bernardino’s work that he asked him to preach in Rome for 80 consecutive days.
What’s not to love in the story of San Bernardino? It has almost the entire panoply of the branding arts. Event marketing. OOH. Teaser advertising. Viral memes. Emotional impact. Global meaning; local execution. And controversy. No wonder San Bernardino was a shoe-in for the patron saint of advertising.
So here is what I propose. The next time you are struggling with a new challenge, say a prayer to San Bernardino. Not a believer? Even better. Patron Saints, it is said, love to be visited by all manner of seekers and strivers and don’t ask to see your membership card. Here’s the one I use.
San Bernardino, you who changed the world for the better with your fiercely creative advertising, please pray for we laborers in the vineyard of brands.
Pray that we stay humble and seek only to do work so full of charisma, so genuinely interesting, that it makes the brand shine as a living symbol of the creative energies of the culture from which it springs.
Please pray that our love of good work be contagious to all our partners and clients.
San Bernardino, pray for us that we not succumb to the arrogance that would make our work gracelessly loud. Nor that we succumb to the fear that would make our work pleasant but bland.
Please pray for us that we have the courage and inventiveness to do work worthy of the striving imaginations and dreams of the human beings for whom it is intended.
Thank you for serving as the patron saint of advertising and public relations, of the fire and inspiration driving all brands everywhere.
You know how hard it is to do good work. You know that we need grace to rise to the opportunities in front of us. San Bernardino, please pray for us.