Hans Urs von Balthasar as an Interpreter of St Bonaventure

Hans Urs von Balthasar as an Interpreter of St Bonaventure

Kevin Michael Tortorelli, O.F.M.


Hans Urs von Balthasar sees Bonaventure’s entire theology as a witness to the Stigmata of St Francis of Assisi. He writes that the Stigmata of St Francis is the living, organizing center of Bonaventure’s intellectual world[1]. To the extent this claim is correct, Balthasar gives us an agreeable and simple focus for one’s study of Bonaventure whose lengthy corpus runs to 10 hefty volumes in the famous Quaracchi edition. Bonaventure takes Francis as his center and in Bonaventure Franciscan theology gathers at La Verna. The initial insights swirl around the overpowering aspect of the stigmata event that takes one out of oneself (excessus). This excessus or ecstasy is a singular and privileged knowledge of God. The nearer one draws to God the deeper one finds wisdom and the more intense its beauty. Taken out of oneself, one is united to Christ the Bridegroom and enters God and is lost in Him. These ideas of being overpowered by God, the excessus or ecstasy that results, the realm of wisdom, of beauty and union with Christ in God constitute Bonaventure’s focus for his theology.[2] I wish to approach Balthasar’s monograph on Bonaventure in three sections: The Stigmata Event; Its Wisdom and, finally, Its Beauty.

The Stigmata Event

The crucified Christ enfolded in the Seraph appears to Francis as the beauty of Wisdom. Christ expresses Himself by impressing His wounds into Francis’ body as into soft wax. These two words, expressio and impressio, recur frequently. The event therefore has made Francis an image of the crucified, the expression of Christ’s love. This image contains the whole of history as symbolized in the six wings of the seraph that correspond to the six ages of world history as it prepares for the seventh and final age already represented in the stigmatic Francis and his deeply felt poverty. For Francis is the image of the cross in the spirit of the Carthusian motto Stat crux dum volvitur orbis, a kind of theology of history.[3] With this mention of the cross, Bonaventure speaks of the Trinity and of the crucified Christ’s nuptial love for us that contains both drunkenness and shame for the drunken love of the crucified for us knows no shame (Heb 12:2).

Bonaventure prepares the ground for the Wisdom of the stigmata event. Wisdom keeps knowledge integral and authentic by relating knowledge and reason to Christ as Word. Reason certainly has its appropriate and indispensable place as one contemplates the excessus or the ecstasy of being overwhelmed by the ever greater fullness of God. But before God’s superabundance, reason shares its place with a light that demands faith, with the superabundance of the crucified’s love that demands humility and with the superabundance of the divine prodigality that demands complete poverty.[4]

The expressio and impressio of the Christ of the stigmata point to the eternal procession or expression of the Son. In this expression the ‘whole God’ is likewise expressed, viz., the Father and the Spirit. In other words, the Son is God as expression and as the truth of love as union. Christ as expression also grounds the notion of creation within the act of generation within the Godhead. Because the Son is absolute expression of the Father He is also archetype, idea and exemplar of all things outside God. A conclusion is to observe that the one unique Word is the sum of all the ideas of the world. In this vein, God is active in every act of knowing as principle, reason, object and cause. So much is this true that our consciousness of knowing contains an implicit awareness of God as transcendent subject-object. This quality of our knowing is reductio, a kind of Jacob’s ladder (Gn 28: 10-13; and see Gn 32: 22-32), that is our way to God and God’s way to us.

The Wisdom of the Stigmata

Gloria Dei vivens homo.[5] Bonaventure is foursquare in this warm and upbeat tradition in his view that the world in its existence is ordered towards the human. Matter has an appetitus towards form and has the dynamism of light to assume form and to express its reconciling role between matter and life or spirit. The human body, a harmonious order both in itself and with reference to all matter, is in turn ordered toward the spiritual soul. Nature thus shares a common fate with us and is affected in its inner existence by our human condition – innocent with us, fallen with us, shaken, judged and purified with us.[6] Overall Bonaventure articulates an optimism about the development (processus) of history toward the perfect in human existence. In its turn, humanity realizes the perfection of the material world and the Incarnation sublates this perfection into redemption in which the first was joined to the last and God joined to clay. Christ is the high point of the world, of the cosmos and of history as its center.

The impressio of the Stigmata is God’s imprint on the material world, an imprint of God’s nearness and love to which ecstasy responds. The human being is both the center and summary of the world. In the stigmata, the five human senses have been prepared as the eyes of faith truly to present to Francis the Christ who is to be contemplated. Francis’ five senses bear the wounds of Him who was put to death in all five senses. In the eucharist we share with Christ the death of our senses (apart from hearing) and the dismissal of our faculties of knowing. Faith alone presides here. The Christ borne by the Seraph descends to Francis as love who desires us to draw near. Love wishes to be imitated and so Christ and Francis share wounds. The Christ of La Verna descends to humility, poverty and the cross. These three express Christ authentically and Francis as well.

Even Homer nods (Horace, Ars Poetica, 359). By way of lament, Balthasar makes the difficult observation:

“At this point, Bonaventure (with less hesitation than any other theologian) builds into his theology the questionable argument of Augustine that ultimately justifies evil in the world and even everlasting hell on aesthetic grounds.”

Balthasar continues:

“This and similar passages indicate a limitation in this otherwise joyful loving thinker that alienates, a barrier that comes from Augustine....”[7]

The argument, Balthasar goes on to say, is not in keeping with Bonaventure’s whole celebration of the Wisdom and Beauty of the Stigmata. Balthasar seems to think we have here a kind of purpureus pannus (Ars Poetica, 15-16) in Bonaventure’s thought, a bit that doesn’t quite fit the overall structure.

The Beauty of the Stigmata

For Bonaventure, beauty is not a separate transcendental together with unity, truth and goodness. Beauty is a kind of rounding-off of the transcendentals in itself, a kind of circling them, perhaps the transcendental common to unity, truth and goodness. But this, Balthasar maintains, remains unclear.[8] The purified soul (the pure heart) sees itself as an image of God that is an image without limit. Such a soul is universalized to become the Church, the New Jerusalem and that grasps within itself the whole kingdom of God. This is the purified soul’s capacity to reflect these mysteries in herself as in a mirror. And this mirror is the expression of the purified soul’s beauty. The purified soul now becomes the contemplative soul. The mirror of the soul contains everything as reflected. Balthasar writes:

“The impulse of beauty...lies...in the possibility for the totality of being in the world to reflect itself and express itself in the soul....”[9]

The beauty of the soul is real beauty because it is nearest the original world of divine expressio. True beauty dwells in the beauty of wisdom. Beauty is equally located in the senses and in sense perception that is fundamentally transparent to Trinitarian expressio for beauty expresses our participation by grace in the joy of Trinity God. Beauty knows that God alone is the source of joy. Things tend toward self-expression and in their basking in light God expresses Himself in them. The center and high point of this manifold capacity of expressio is Christ. He is the appearing of absolute beauty that simply ravishes the soul by which the Son leads the soul to the Father. Francis saw in things their free and gracious expressio of this absolute beauty and their ability to lead him by way of reductio to Christ the absolute beauty and radiating light. For the beauty of Christ, the radiant appearance of the divine essence, is His love to which He invites us.

For Bonaventure, the issue is not a beauty that is a measure but a beauty of what is immeasurable. Its expressio lies in measure and comes from the sovereignty of God. We receive it in the ecstasy of wonder and adoration. For Bonaventure, God is beauty past all hope.

Balthasar asks what is decisively Franciscan in this structure of beauty?[10] The extraordinary gift of God’s absolute expressio is the love that can express this absolute expressio in what is nothing. This is equally the expressio of God’s humility and condescension, His vulnerability, His going outside His own riches to become poor (cf 2Cor 8:9), His going forth (exivit) and taking the form of a slave (Phil 2:7). Creation, revelation, grace, Incarnation, cross, abandonment and betrayal express the humility of God’s love for a diminished.[11] creation once condemned to futility (Rom 8:20). In the humbling of self lies the height of the imitation of God.

This whole divine expressio into nothingness is not only hidden but distorted and deformed, without beauty or comeliness. It is the heart of the Son that, wounded by the spear, becomes the expressio of invitation and access to God. The visible wound is the expressio of the invisible wound of love. The expressio of Christ’s wounds draws all to itself, especially Francis the stigmatist, cor ad cor. Francis’ poverty makes room for the impressio of Christ’s wounds in Francis’ body. On La Verna poverty is mutual and is revealed in the smeared nuptial kiss of the cross. For Bonaventure the Stigmata is already the end of the ages as the true appearance of the cross of Christ in the Church as His mystical body. This meditation on the humility of God whose absolute expressio culminates in the wounds of the crucified in the body of St Francis constitutes Bonaventure’s crowning conclusion on the Stigmata, its Wisdom and Beauty.[12]


Bonaventure lays emphasis on expressio in the Stigmata event that is Christ’s gift (impressio) to Francis and that makes him an imago Christi, an expression of the whole mystery of the cross. The Wisdom of the Stigmata discloses in the stigmata event the whole movement toward the appearance of the human and then of Christ. Our five senses serve the eyes of faith especially in the beauty of the eucharist. The Beauty of the Stigmata attaches to the purified soul as the mirror of all reality. Beauty responds to joy in the absolute beauty of Christ and to every manifestation and expression of love. What is particularly Franciscan here is to see that beauty lies in the divine humility and disfigurement, a beauty that rests in minority, poverty and service.


[1] Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Bonaventure.” The Glory of the Lord. A Theological Aesthetics. II. Studies in Theological Style: Clerical Style, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1984), 263.

[2] Balthasar, “Bonaventure”, 270. Balthasar elsewhere discusses Bonaventure, e.g., in Theologic. II. Truth of God, trans. Adrian Walker (transl), (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 163-176, 194-200 but the present article is a close reading of the Bonaventure monograph cited above., pp. 260-362.

[3] I translate the Carthusian motto: The cross stands still while the world revolves around it. A theology of history, especially in the from of the three ages or the seven ages was a dangerous reflection given the excesses, eg, of Joachim of Flora and Gerard of Borgo San Donnino. See Bonaventure, Collations on the Hexaemeron, Vol XVIII, Works of St Bonaventure, ed. Dominic V Monti (St Bonaventure University: Franciscan Institute Publications, 2018), XVI, pp. 279-296; Balthasar, Theologic II, “The Trinitarian Structure of History,” pp. 200-209; and see Joseph Ratzinger, The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure, trans. Zachary Hayes (Providence, RI: Cluny Media edition, 2020). Further on the Hexaemeron, see Balthasar, Theologic II, pp.194-200.

[4] Balthasar, “Bonaventure”, p. 282.

[5] St Irenaeus of Lyon, Adversus Haereses, IV.20.7. The Glory of God is a living human being.

[6] See Timothy J. Johnson, “Francis and creation”, especially his section on Bonaventure’s theology of creatures and the cosmos where Johnson elaborates on the eschatological connection between humanity and all creatures, in Francis of Assisi, ed. Michael J.P. Robson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 150-153.

[7] Balthasar, “Bonaventure”, p. 331 and footnote 349.

[8] Balthasar returns to Bonaventure on the transcendentals in Theologic, II, pp. 174-176.

[9] Balthasar, “Bonaventure”, p. 339.

[10] Balthasar, “Bonaventure”, p. 352.

[11] Balthasar, “Bonaventure”, p. 353; for the significance of expressio for Bonaventure, see Balthasar, Theologic II, 167-169.

[12] Balthasar returns to a meditation on St Francis, this time apart from the Stigmata, in The Glory of the Lord. A Theological  Aesthetics, IV: The Realm of Metaphysics in Antiquity (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), pp. 378-381.


Kevin Tortorelli is a 74 years old Franciscan of the Order of Friars Minor. Born in Boston, MA, he holds degrees from the Washington Theological Union, St Bonaventure University, Boston College and has done research at St Edmund's College, Cambridge, UK. He has taught Religious Studies and Classical languages at Siena College, Loudonville, NY. His chief interests lie in Patristics and in the thought of Bernard Lonergan and Hans Urs von Balthasar. Presently he lives in St Petersburg, FL, in happy semi-retirement. He has written two books and published a little over two dozen articles.