St. John Gualbert founded the Vallombrosan Order, which was modeled on the Benedictine Order but somewhat stricter. One day in his youth in Florence he encountered a man who had murdered one of his kinsmen. At first he resolved to avenge the murder by killing the man, but he stopped abruptly when the man bowed his head and extended his arms, reminding him of Christ on the cross. He decided to have mercy on the murderer.
Soon thereafter, in the church of St. Miniatus he was praying before a crucifix when the figure on the cross bowed its head just as the man had done, "as if thanking him for having mercy on his enemy." This miracle led the young man to enter the monastery of St. Miniatus, which he later left to found an abbey of stricter observance in Vallombrosa.1
St. John's attribute is a hand cross, as in the two images at left. The fact that it is a cross rather than a crucifix may refer to the miraculous cross that the saint used in exorcisms. Even after his death, the cross was kept in the abbey and often used successfully to exorcise demoniacs brought from Florence and elsewhere.2
In the images, the saint is tonsured and of course wears the habit of his order. In the second image at right we also see what may be a crozier, but topped by a tau rather than a hook. Perhaps this also refers to the importance of the cross in St. John's life.
Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University
HAGIOGRAPHY: The three main sources are all published in the Acta Sanctorum, July vol. 3:
NOTES1 The story of the murderer and the crucifix, with the quoted phrase, is told in two Vitae that Butler (III, 82) says were written within a half-century after the saint's death: the first by Andrew of Strumi (see Acta Sanctorum July vol. 3, 343), the second by Atto of Vallombrosa (see ibid., 366).
2 Jerome of Raggiolo (Hieronymus Radiolensi), Miracula Sancti Joannis Gualberti, in Acta Sanctorum July vol. 3, pp. 383, 393, et pass.