Times Past

The story of San Luis Obispo's namesake

Special to The TribuneFebruary 9, 2013 

The real person for whom our county and county seat were named became a hostage at the age of 14. His life as a prisoner lasted nearly seven years.

St. Louis the Bishop, despite his connections to Europe’s “most royal” families, did not have an easy life. In 1284 Louis was ten years old and heir to Charles II, the King of Naples, when his father was taken prisoner by the King of Aragon in a sea battle. Charles was released only after agreeing to send three of his sons as hostages to insure Neopolitan compliance with the terms of an armistice. Such arrangements were common during the turbulent thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

When one of Louis’ younger brother’s health deteriorated, the royal sons were turned over to the newly established mendicant community of Franciscans in Barcelona and Valencia.

When he was 18, Louis and his brothers were freed by a treaty between Naples and Aragon.

But Louis’s exposure to the charisma of the humble Franciscans had changed his life. Louis abdicated all claims to the crown of Naples and asked his father to give that honor to his younger brother, Robert.

Joining the Franciscans, Louis quickly became noted for his piety and trust in God. He wanted to be a Franciscan brother, but Pope Boniface VIII directed that he be ordained a priest at the age of 23. He was also consecrated archbishop of the troubled diocese of Tolouse in southern France.

He walked barefoot along the streets of Toulouse and the rough country roads. He talked with the people and tried to share their concerns. He worked tirelessly in his missions of reconciliation and healing disease and poverty.

He soon exhausted himself. Because he had taken a vow to abstain from wine except through the Eucharist, he often drank polluted water. He died before he turned 24.

His youth, his sacrifice and his royal lineage all combined to make him an irresistible symbol for Franciscan art in the 15th and 16th centuries.

The story of San Luis Obispo de Tolosa inspired three young friends on the island of Mallorca in the early 18th century. Junipero Serra, Juan Crespí and Francisco Palóu came to the Californias in 1769 and brought San Luis’ story with them.

These Franciscan missionaries grew up in the churches of the Balearic Islands that were filled with lively symbolic images. The padres understood the missionary potential of art and music in creating theaters for converting non-Christians and renewing the faith of those who were baptized.

Serra commissioned paintings by Mexico City’s José de Páez (1720–1790) of the five patron saints of the missions: the Archangel Gabriel, Luis Obispo de Tolosa, Antonio de Padua, Clare of Assisi, and Francis of Assisi.

He stipulated that Saint Luis Obispo be painted “with . . . his [Bishop’s] mitre on his head,... and his royal crown, and a scepter at his feet . . . ” to symbolize St. Louis’s renouncing his “royal crown” for a “heavenly one.”

That painting is now in our Mission collection.

A statue of St. Louis facing the right side of the altar in Mission San Louis Obispo came to our community in 1791. It depicts a very young man under a bishop’s mitre.

But there is also a triptych, or three-part image, of St. Louis in our Mission which has recently been restored. The account of its journey, its restorer and its rehabilitated home are a fascinating story for next week’s times past.

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.

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