The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1983, Volume 29, Number 4
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor

by Thomas Case
Department of Spanish and Portuguese
San Diego State University

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1609 woodcut of padre San Diego San Diego is by and large an unknown saint in the city which bears his name. He has been, however, the subject of several biographies and he figures widely in the Lives of the Saints written over the past four hundred years. Unfortunately, most of these works are old and very rare and quite inaccessible to the general public. In the years following the canonization of San Diego in 1588, he was quite well known in the Spanish-speaking areas of the world and commanded a respectable following. It was then common to name children and churches after San Diego. When Sebastián Vizcaíno, aboard the San Diego, sailed into San Miguel Bay in 1602, he renamed the site San Diego, mainly because his crew later heard Mass on November 12 — San Diego’s date on the liturgical calendar.1 Even before San Diego had a future city named after him, hagiographers were busy compiling facts and composing inspirational accounts of his life and holy works. In the following brief study a summary of the life of San Diego will be presented as well as a discussion of his biographers.

San Diego was born and raised in the village of San Nicolás del Puerto in the province of Seville. His parents were devotees of Santiago, St. James the Greater, the son of Zebedee, and they named their son after this saint, giving him the popular variant, Diego.2 At an early age Diego entered the service of a hermit and lived in dire poverty on a hill near his home town, growing vegetables and carving utensils out of wood to support himself and to raise money for the poor. When he was about thirty years old, he joined the Franciscan Order as a lay brother at the Convent of San Francisco de Arrizafa, near Córdoba. This convent followed the rule of the Observants, a reform movement then sweeping the Christian world.3 Like most friars of this inclination, Friar Diego never learned to read or write, and dedicated himself to serving the needs of the poor with charitable deeds, raising vegetables (he shunned meat), and aiding the sick. His stay in Córdoba was apparently short, for he was soon transferred to the Convent of San Francisco in Seville, commonly called the Casa-Grande.

Around 1441, Diego was sent, along with the theologian Juan de Santorcaz and five other friars, to the island of Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands.4 Despite his lack of schooling, he was elected guardian of the convent there. The religious zeal and exemplary piety of this small community under the guidance of Friar Diego earned the attention of Pope Eugene IV, who bestowed on these friars special privileges and indulgences. At one point, Diego desired to evangelize La Gran Canaria, another island in the archipelago, even at the risk of martyrdom. He was denied his wish by the Spanish soldiers, who would not permit him to land because of the ferocity of the natives.

Friar Diego returned to Spain in 1449. At about the same time, the great pope of the Renaissance, Nicholas V, announced a jubilee in Rome for 1450 to celebrate the canonization of another Franciscan, St. Bernardino of Siena. Friar Diego was ordered to accompany the venerable friar, Alonso de Castro, to witness and participate in this august event. The Franciscans were to assemble under the leadership of Juan Capistrano. In the course of the celebrations, an epidemic of plague broke out in the Eternal City. Friar Diego became even more renowned because of his care of the sick and dying at the Convent of Ara Coeli, where most of the Spanish friars were staying.5 Friar Diego returned to Seville and soon was transferred first to Pastrana and then to La Salceda, near Tendilla, some sixty kilometers east of Madrid in the Province of Guadalajara. His final assignment was in Alcalá de Henares at the newly founded Convent of Santa María de Jesús, which was then being constructed by the influential Prelate of Spain, don Alonso Carrillo de Acuña, Archbishop of Toledo. In the sixteenth century, Alcalá de Henares was an important commercial center. Of greater significance was the famous university there, founded by the illustrious Cardinal Jiménez de Cisneros in 1508, which was to become the hub of Spain’s humanist movement. Cardinal Cisneros entered the Franciscan Order at La Salceda, a few years after Friar Diego had left his mark there. Friar Diego lived in Alcalá de Henares from 1456 until his death, November 12, 1463. In his last years, he worked in the infirmary and in the garden. When he became too feeble for physical work, he was given the task of doorkeeper.

While he was only a humble, lay Franciscan friar, San Diego did not live in obscurity. Soon after he took the habit, word circulated about his gentle holiness and virtue. His exemplary life as a friar led to his missionary work in Fuerteventura. Later, his actions in Rome and Alcalá de Henares caused many to believe that he was endowed with special spiritual powers and many flocked to his convent seeking religious guidance and cures for diseases and ailments. Religious figures often had large followings in those days. In the final years of his life, he was a friend of the Provincial Vicar, Friar Rodrigo de Ocaña, and of the Archbishop of Toledo, one of the most powerful men in Spain. His sanctity touched the lives of two kings. Enrique IV, king of Castile in 1454-1474, learned of Friar Diego’s fervor and of a grape arbor he had planted in Alcalá. Grapes from this arbor were always served at his table (this king never touched wine). In 1463, Enrique fell from his horse on one of his many hunting excursions. The resulting stiff arm became a severe impediment. The king went to Alcalá de Henares just after the death of Diego and had his body taken from his casket. After touching the dead friar’s body, the king immediately felt the pain and stiffness disappear and he was able to resume normal activities. King Enrique ordered a chapel built to house the remains of Friar Diego.6 In the area of Alcalá de Henares, there was much talk of sainthood. Rome, however, was not moved. A whole century elapsed before energetic pressure was applied to secure Vatican response.

When the hapless son of Felipe II, Don Carlos, was cured of a head injury after he too was put in contact with the remains of Friar Diego,7 the Spanish crown petitioned the Vatícan to investigate possible canonization. There were delays, caused mainly by the brief terms of three popes. In 1585, Sixtus V, a Franciscan Observant, became pope and aided the cause. While Sixtus V had serious disagreements with the Spanish monarch,8 particularly regarding his plan to attack England in the fall of 1588, he was in favor of canonizing Friar Diego and he expedited the proceedings. Amid tears of joy and clamorous exaltation in Spain, San Diego was canonized in Rome July 2, 1588. There was a spectacular celebration in Alcalá de Henares, April 10, 1589, at which Felipe II and the royal family were in attendance. Ironically, Prince Don Carlos had died by then.

San Diego was illiterate and a strict Observant (therefore eschewing worldly recognition) and there are no letters or other records of his activities. However, the oral transmission of his life was apparently very good. Franciscan chroniclers in the sixteenth century arduously tracked down facts of holy men within the order. Before his canonization, little was known of San Diego outside the region of Alcalá de Henares, Seville, and the Franciscan Order. We recognize that the importance of San Diego, and his sainthood, was due to a great extent to his last years and death in Alcalá de Henares. In the second half of the sixteenth century, the Council of Trent (1545-1562) and the reign of Felipe II (1556-1598) were to play an important role also. The Council of Trent was set up, much by the urging of Spanish theologians trained at Alcalá, to stem the tide of the Protestant revolt. It sought a reform of the Catholic Church from within, and many of its principles were exemplified by Friar Diego’s simple, orthodox Catholicism and his love of poverty, chastity, and the sacraments. Under Felipe II, Spain felt its mission was to oppose heretics and infidels, and the elevation to sainthood of an Old Christian (that is, with no Jewish blood or the intellectualizing religiosity of New Christians) like Diego corresponded closely to the outlook and ideals of this Hapsburg king, who was also willing to pay the Vatican for the expenses incurred by the canonization trials. Friar Diego, of course, is not to blame for what was done in the enhancement of his person for other than pious reasons. He was a good Christian and a saintly man. We may speculate, however, that if he had lived and died in any other place, he would have remained the obscure man he thought he truly was.

Before San Diego’s canonization, Marcos de Lisboa, a chronicler of the Franciscan Order, had already given coverage of his life in his Chronicle and Institution of the Order of the Seraphical Father St. Francis (English translation, 1587). This work was to appear in many languages for over a half a century. Once San Diego was officially a saint, it is not clear which book on his life came out first. It may be Pietro Galesino’s Sancti Didaci complutensis vita, which was published by the Vatican Press in 1588. This short work in Latin has three parts: one on the saint’s life; another is a brief summary of the miracles presented as evidence for canonization; a third details the canonization ceremony in Rome. Father Galesino places emphasis on San Diego’s virtues and discipline and his worthiness of sainthood. The first two parts are dry, perfunctory accounts, while the third is vivid and informative, as the author is relating events he had just seen. Published with Galesino’s book is Marco Antonio Cardinal Columna’s Relatio de vita et miraculis B. E. Didaci de S. Nicolao, which adds nothing to the other account.

San Diego’s canonization also spawned a flock of short poems and glosses in Spanish, most written to celebrate an event of national importance. One such occasional piece is a sonnet by Spain’s great poet and playwright, Lope de Vega.9 The first complete work in Spanish seems to be La vida del glorioso santo fray Diego de la Orden del Serafico Padre san Francisco, con algunos de sus milagros, Cuyo sagrado cuerpo está en la villa de Alcala de Henares, en el monasterio de santa Maria de Jesus de la misma Orden, con una breve relacion de su canonizacion. Compuesto en verso castellano por Pedro Moreno de la Rea vezino de Sevilla, published in Seville in 1588. The poem is a separate printing in chapbook form, eight pages long. It has no colophon, signatures, or page numbers. It contains forty-one stanzas in décimas, a popular verse form at that time. It covers the whole life of San Diego, from his birth in San Nicolas del Puerto to his death in Alcalá de Henares. Because of its brevity, it gives few details. Moreno de la Rea is careful to point out that San Diego, like himself, was from the diocese of Seville. Of the four miracles he relates, two are from that part of Andalucía. While the poem is not great literature, the style has some grace and its treatment of San Diego is a good outline of the major events of his life.

The first book-length biography of San Diego is Gabriel de Mata’s Vida, muerte y milagros de S. Diego de Alcalá en octava rima, published in Alcalá de Henares in 1589. In the tradition of the Renaissance epic poem, Spain in the sixteenth century produced numerous religious epic poems. Many of these epics deal with Old Testament heroes, such as Samson, Tobias, or David, or with New Testament figures like Christ and the Virgin, and with saints like St. Jerome, San Benito, or St. Francis. A Franciscan, Gabriel de Mata had already published his poem on St. Francis, Primera Segunda y Tercera Parte del Cavallero Asisio, in 1587. His long poem on San Diego consists of sixteen cantos. The substance is chiefly inspirational and, although it contains most of what we know about the saint, the poetic nature of the octaves (heroic verse) clouds the historical facts. There are multiple digressions from the main story, some of which reflect the poet’s humanistic background in Greek and Roman mythology. In one episode, Neptune invites the devil (Belzubu) to his underwater chambers to show him the marvels of the deep. The two then conspire to create a storm in an attempt to prevent Friar Diego from reaching his destination in the Canary Islands. Mata covers some periods of San Diego’s life in detail, but the source of his information appears to be more poetic license than historical record. The verses regarding Friar Diego’s journey to the Canary Islands, for instance, include a fascinating stop on Tenerife first, with descriptions of the natives and their leaders. Mata even provides us with the name of the captain of the Spanish garrison of the expedition, Rodrigo de Fajardo, and those of several of the soldiers. Following the text of the poem, there is an appendix which contains first-hand information of the celebrations in Alcalá de Henares in April of 1589. There is also a copy of the Papal Bull declaring the canonization, and copies of the hieroglyphics, glosses, and other poetic material written for the occasion. A general assessment of the book, keeping in mind the public fervor at the time, is that it is a sincere and enthusiastic tribute to the saint and his miracles. Mata is not a great poet; Pierce calls his style “tedious.”10 The description of the celebration of 1589 is historical documentation. Most of the odes and other poems which fill out the volume are stiff, academic exercises in Spanish and Latin done by the students in Alcalá de Henares. If nothing else, they attest the importance of the occasion.

At the heels of those who wrote about San Diego as a hero were the priests who compiled the lives of the saints. After San Diego de Alcalá (or de San Nicolás, as he was first known) was entered in the catalogue of saints, he occupied the place for November 12, although today he is honored on November 13.11 Very prominent was Pedro de Rivadeneira’s Flos sanctorum (1599-1603). Rivadeneira wrote his little biographical sketches with baroque intensity and a theatrical touch which make them dramatic reading.12 The critic, Menéndez Pelayo, praised his style as that of a “tan elegante y clásica pluma.”13 San Diego’s life lacks the excitement of conversion or martyrdom, so Rivadeneira lays stress on his asceticism and charity. He does not fail to point out, for instance, that San Diego tried to cure a leper by licking his wounds, or that he daily plunged into a pool of icy water, winter and summer, to ward off temptations of concupiscence. Of all the early versions of the life of San Diego, Rivadeneira’s is the least original, but the best written. It would remain the most read over the centuries, either in its original form or as the source for other Lives of the Saints. Early in the seventeenth century, the Irishman Lucas Wadding (1588-1637) compiled the Annales minorum seu Ordinem A. S. Francisco Institutorum, with an extensive coverage of San Diego’s life.

Anecdotal in nature is Benito Carrasco’s poem of a miracle attributed to the intercession of the new saint. Its title explains the argument: Aquí se contiene un milagro que el glorioso San Diego hizo con una deuota suya, a los veinte y cinco de febrero deste Año de mil & quinientos y noventa y quatro. Y assi mismo trata de la gran justicia que en la Ciudad de Lisboa se hizo de vn ingles luterano; y de otros. Compuesto en verso castellano por Benito Carrasco vezino de Avila. Impressa en Lisboa. Only seven pages in length, the poem is a panegyric of the saint, and tells how a young Portuguese lass, devoted to San Diego, is deceived into marriage by an English Protestant who takes her to Geneva to be a slave to his other wife. The Portuguese girl is saved from a sad fate by San Diego. The Inquisition burns her false husband and thirty-five others for heresy.

The most complete and informative of the early works of San Diego is Padre Melchor de Cetina’s Discursos sobre la vida y milagros del glorioso padre San Diego, de la orden del serafico padre S. Francisco, published in Madrid in 1609. Padre Cetina had the advantage of serving in the Convent of Santa María de Jesús in Alcalá de Henares for over twenty years. He was an eyewitness to the celebrations of the canonization in 1589. On that occasion, he assisted the guardian of the convent in carrying San Diego’s standard in the procession. When he was finishing his Discursos in 1607, Cetina himself was the guardian of the convent. His book has two parts: the first has thirty discourses of the life of San Diego; the second has forty discourses in which he describes the 130 miracles presented as evidence in the canonization trial. His history of the birth and youth of San Diego is sketchy and adds little to what we know from other works. Once Diego has joined the Franciscan Order, however, the amount of new facts increases and a clearer picture begins to take shape. The period 1450-1463 is covered the best. These years correspond to San Diego’s waning of life in Castile, and especially at Santa Mar&icacute;a de Jesús, where Padre Cetina must have had access to records. Unlike the previous versions, which tend to be poetic and dramatic, Padre Cetina’s is sober in its approach and precise in its language. In the spirit of the Council of Trent, this book deals more properly with Christian life and morals and uses San Diego as a model. For this reason, it is necessary to sift through the moral lessons to find the biographical material which interests us. Padre Cetina was a learned man, probably a graduate of the strict humanistic curriculum of the University of Alcalá. He documents his discourses with abundant references and quotations from the Bible, the Classical Writers, and the Fathers of the Church, and he scrupulously annotates his sources in the margin. His portrayal of San Diego is that of a charitable, ascetic, contemplative Franciscan friar who practiced Christian virtue in its most rigorous form. The work is a well-researched piece of theological reasoning and of biographical record.

The second half of Cetina’s discourses covers the miracles attributed to San Diego’s intercession to the time of the composition of the book in 1607. Even when some of the miracles have a legendary flavor, Padre Cetina strives to present them with scholarly accuracy and distance. He was writing from a position of unquestioning faith in an era when that was the rule. Like Mata, Cetina describes the canonization celebration as he saw it. He also had at his disposal the records of the miracles kept in the archives of Alcalá de Henares. Most important of all, Melchor de Cetina wrote with the correctness and authority his position as a Franciscan theologian and guardian of the Convent of Santa María de Jesus afforded him. Because of this, his long work (656 pages plus prefatory material) is the most complete and reliable of the accounts of the life of San Diego.

Cetina’s Discursos ended a twenty-year period of biographical writing on San Diego. It was not until 1663 that a new work appeared. This was Fray Antonio Rojo’s Historia de San Diego de Alcalá. Fundación y frutos de santidad que ha prodvzido sv convento de Santa Maria de Jesvs, de la N. P. S. Francisco de la observancia de la santa provincia de Castilla (Madrid: Real Imprenta, 1663). Only one of the five libros of this work deals with San Diego’s life, and it is limited to an outline. Rojo’s chief concern is the history of the Convent of Santa María de Jesús. While there is no new information on the life of San Diego, Rojo describes miracles and other events relating to his influence during the last years of the reign of Felipe III (1598-1621) and most of the reign of Felipe IV (1621-1665), including the attempted cure of another prince, Felipe Próspero. The new material complements Melchor de Cetina’s history of those times. Rojo’s book suffers from a lack of focus and has a rather wooden style.

Three full centuries form the gap between Rojo’s history and the short San Diego de San Nicolás del Puerto (Seville: Imprenta Provincial, 1964) by Antonio Hernández Parrales. Father Hernández was archivist for the Archdiocese of Seville and he wrote this biography in 1963 to commemorate the five-hundredth anniversary of San Diego’s death. The saint, one may recall, lived a good share of his life in this religious jurisdiction. Unfortunately, this biography does not present the life of San Diego in a very coherent way. It is poorly organized and makes little use of previous biographies. While not a very good writer, Hernández seems to be a better archivist and he sets straight several errors commonly found in other biographies. For instance, most accounts state that San Diego lived in the Convent of Nuestra Señora de Loreto after he returned from Fuerteventura. Hernández shows that the convent did not exist until over fifty years after this occurrence. What this version states is accurate history, but the stress on many minor ecclesiastical details detracts from the story of the saint. There is no attempt to give a historical perspective to San Diego’s life.

There is no available modern biography of San Diego. The few copies of the early biographies are very rare books. Time has not been kind to the places where he once lived. The Convent at Arrizafa was torn down in the sixteenth century, and the Casa-Grande in Seville was destroyed by the French army in the Napoleonic era. La Salceda is in ruins on its hill overlooking Tendilla, and Santa María de Jesús gave way to military barracks in the secularization process of the nineteenth century. Some things remain. A cave, believed to be San Diego’s hermitage, is still visited on Fuerteventura. In San Nicolás del Puerto his home is still standing, and one can climb the hill where he once lived with the old priest. San Diego’s body still lies in its silver casket in a chapel of the Iglesia Magistral in Alcalá de Henares.

San Diego’s popularity was at its highest point in the early years of the seventeenth century. He was then the subject of famous painters, like Ribera, Zurbarán, and Murillo. Lope de Vega wrote a play on his life to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of his canonization in 1613.14 His importance went beyond the feelings of those who lived in Alcalá de Henares. This new saint for Spain embodied many admirable virtues in his poverty and simple orthodoxy in a time when the country was becoming more and more confused and insecure under the rule of kings Felipe II, III, and IV. After the turbulent sixteenth century, most Spaniards longed for peace, a peace San Diego seemed to symbolize. They wanted to be beside this lover of animals and plants, this unambitious and unassuming friar, not next to Santiago, the killer of Moors.

San Diego would be at home in the groves and canyons of the city named for him. He is a real historical figure, not a legend and not St. James the Apostle, as some people have assumed. As can be seen, for approximately one hundred years Diego was the subject of many biographies and literary pieces. Our city, however, is really the best monument to his memory.



1. See Arthur Frederick Ide, “San Diego, the Saint and the City,” Journal of San Diego History, 22 (Fall, 1976), p. 23.

2. See Etta Florence Adair, ” ‘San Diego’ Means ‘St. Didacus,’ Not ‘St. James,’ Research Reveals,” San Diego Union, November 15, 1942. Cf. “Nomen accepit Jacobi, Hispania sacrum propter sancti Jacobi Apostoli sui Tutelaris reverentiam; quod vulgo Diego, Latine Didacum invertunt.” Luca Waddingo, ed., Annales Minorum seu Ordinem A. S. Francisco Institutorum (Florence: Ad Claras Aquas, 1932), XI, p. 158. In other words. San-Tiago first gave Diago and Diego and from the Spanish, in reverse etymology, Didacus was created for the Latin records.

3. See Raphael M. Huber, A Documented History of the Franciscan Order (Milwaukee: Nawing, 1944), p. 283.

4. José de Viera y Clavijo, Noticias de la historia generat de las Islas Canarias, ed. definitiva, 3 vols. (Santa Cruz de Tenerife: Goya, 1950-52), I, pp. 382-92, covers San Diego’s life on Fuerteventura with some detail.

5. Cf. “Une fois la porte du convent franchie, celui qui, sortant de l’abîme de désespoir qu’étaient alors les rues de Rome, avait poussé cette pauvre clôiture, entrait dans un oasis de paix et de serenité. Sous la main de saint Didace d’Alcala, une floraison miraculeuse d’ordre, de calme,de charité, de renoncement, d’oublie de soi-même, d’heroïsme simple et souriant avait levé là.” H. Matrod, “Les fètes de la canonisation de Saint Bernardin de Sienne à Rome en 1450,” Etudes Franciscaines, 30 (1913), p. 168.

6. See Melchor de Cetina, Discursos sobre la vida y milagros del glorioso padre San Diego (Madrid, 1609), Fol. 175v.

7. His doctors, of course, claimed they were responsible for his recovery. See testimony adduced in William H. Prescott, History of the Reign of Philip the Second King of Spain, 2 vols. (Boston: Phillip, Sampson & Co., 1855), II, pp. 517-20; and William T. Walsh, Philip II (London: Sheed and Ward, 1937), pp. 324-36.

8. See Freiherr von Pastor, The History of the Popes, ed. Ralph Francis Kerr (London: Kegan, Paul, Trench, Truber, 1932), XXII, pp. 47-70.

9. Reprinted by Antonio Restori, “Sonetti dimenticati di Lope de Vega,” La Rassegna, 34 (1926), p. 165.

10. La poesía épica del Siglo de Oro (Madrid: Gredos, 1968), p. 295.

11. “The three branches of the First Order celebrate the feast of St. Didacus on November thirteenth.” Marion A. Habig, OFM, The Franciscan Book of Saints (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1959), p. 809. Also see Butler’s Lives of the Saints, ed. Herbert Thurston, S. J., and Donald Attwater (New York: P. J. Kenedy, 1965), IV, pp. 327-28. San Diego occupied November 12 on the calendar until the nineteenth century, when he was moved to November 13. In the United States Mother Cabrini has replaced San Diego for November 13, but he retains this place in Spanish-speaking countries.

12. See Ludwig Pfandl, Historia de la Literatura nacional espanola en la edad de oro, trans. Jorge Rubió Balaguer, 2a ed. (Barcelona: Gustavo Gili, 1952), pp. 243-44.

13. Obras de Lope de Vega, publicadas por la Real Academia Española, 15 vols. (Madrid, 1890-1913), IV, xviii-xix.

14. See Joseph Silverman, “Cultural Backgrounds of Spanish Imperialism as Presented in Lope de Vega’s Play, San Diego de Alcalá,” Journal of San Diego History, 24 (Winter, 1978), pp. 7-23. Also, Thomas E. Case, “History and Structural Unity in Lope’s San Diego de Alcalá,” Bulletin of the Comediantes, 32 (1980), pp. 55-62.

THE PHOTOGRAPHS have been supplied through the courtesy of the author.