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Visions of St Francis

For nearly eight centuries, artists have been among the saint’s most avid followers, as a major new exhibition at the National Gallery shows.

By Michael Prodger

Just four kilometres from Assisi, on the plain beneath the town, sits the papal basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli. It is an enormous building, the seventh largest church in Christendom, and it owes its magnificence to the cult of St Francis and the pilgrims who came to venerate him. Inside the basilica, in the middle of the nave itself, is a small chapel, the Portiuncula, which had lain abandoned until Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, St Francis-to-be, had a vision of an icon of the crucified Christ which spoke to him, instructing him to restore the ruined building (this talking painting, circa 1100, is now in the Basilica of Santa Chiara just up the hill in Assisi). Having done so, Francis moved to a hut nearby and it was here that the Franciscan order was formed when he was joined by 12 followers, who like him, adopted the poverty of the people they served. “Nothing belongs to us except our vices and sins,” he said.

In the small museum off the basilica’s cloisters are two paintings of the saint, made within a generation of Francis’s death in 1226: one by the great pre-Renaissance master Cimabue, in circa 1290, the other by an artist known as the Master of St Francis, also from the late 13th century. The former is painted on the lid of the saint’s coffin, the latter on a plank on which he lay while dying. They are not only relics themselves but give a tangible sense of the living man. For all the pomp of the church next door and the riches brought by his worshippers, the pictures show not a generalised, numinous figure, let alone a saint in majesty, but a skinny ascetic with sticking out ears, thin lips and a long and bony nose. Francis had been born to a well-off silk merchant, but the gloss of rich living had long since been rubbed off by his years as an itinerant preacher.

It is easy to imagine this figure, Il Poverello – “the little poor man” – at the end of his short life (he was 44 when he died) back at his hut by the Portiuncula, worn out and ill, expiring with the words “welcome Sister Death” on his lips. Within two years he was canonised by Pope Gregory IX who, the day following the ceremony, laid the foundation stone for the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi, the church that was to receive the saint’s body. St Francis may have believed that it was easier to get to heaven from a hut than a palace but by the time of his death his original dozen followers had burgeoned into 30,000 friars, the Friars Minor, and a saint’s remains guaranteed great wealth to the church – and town – that held them.

St Francis proved as charismatic in death as he had been in life, with a biography that was more appealing than that of his friend St Dominic, particularly to artists. According to Thomas of Celano, the earliest of his many biographers, the young Francis was a “vain and arrogant” boy who dreamed of becoming a knight. He fought in the war between Assisi and Perugia and was captured, spending a year in prison before a growing spiritual awakening led to a falling out with his father, which culminated when Francis stripped naked and renounced his worldly life. In 1209 he led his followers to Rome to ask the pope’s permission to found a religious order. Then, in 1219, during the Fifth Crusade and after two failed attempts to sail to the Holy Land, Francis journeyed to Egypt where, in an attempt to broker peace, he had an audience with the Sultan. During their meeting, Francis proposed that he would walk through fire if the Muslim holy men would do the same, to see who would emerge uninjured and therefore prove which was the truer religion. The Sultan refused this trial but admired Francis and rewarded him with rich gifts.

Back in Italy, Francis resumed his wandering ministry, preached to the birds, persuaded a wolf in Gubbio to stop attacking the locals, and composed the Canticle of the Sun, the song that has made him the patron saint of ecologists. In it he praised not just human brothers and sisters but wider nature – “Sir Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon”, “Brother Wind”, “Sister Water” and “Sister Mother Earth”. Francis believed that nature was the mirror of God. Thomas of Celano put it another way: “In beautiful things he saw Beauty itself.”

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[See also: An unmissable view of Vermeer’s secret worlds]

In the autumn of 1224, as he battled ill health, tiredness and factionalism within his order, Francis retired to the mountain of La Verna in the Apennines near Arezzo for spiritual retreat. It was there, in a vision, that he saw “a man, having six wings like a Seraph, standing over him, arms extended and feet joined, affixed to a cross. Two of his wings were raised up, two were stretched out over his head as if for flight, and two covered his whole body.” Francis only realised the meaning of this apparition when the “Signs of the nails began to appear on his hands and feet, just as he had seen them a little while earlier on the crucified man hovering over him.” Only a few of his closest companions witnessed the holy wounds and they kept them secret. It wasn’t until after Francis’s death that the five marks of the stigmata were lauded as a sign that the saint was not merely an exceptionally pious and devout holy man but an alter Christus (“another Christ”). He was the first divine to be given the designation.

Although the miracles attributed to Francis took place posthumously, his life was full of incidents made for painters. One modern scholar, William Cook, has estimated that within a century of his death there were 20,000 pictures and illustrations of the saint. It is this extraordinarily rich iconography, which continues today, that is the subject of the National Gallery’s major new exhibition. There are 40 works from seven centuries on show and the roster of artists is remarkable: Botticelli and Francisco de Zurbarán, El Greco and Caravaggio, Fra Angelico and Albrecht Altdorfer, Stanley Spencer and – with a piece made specially for the exhibition – Richard Long. And that is without the likes of Giotto, Dürer, Rubens, Rembrandt and Giovanni Bellini, whose St Francis in the Desert (circa 1480), in the Frick Collection in New York, is one of art’s most ecstatic pictures.

The reason for this array is that St Francis’s life offered something that fitted every painter’s needs, from the mystical to the dramatic – and in the case of the National Gallery’s Zurbarán, Saint Francis in Meditation (1635-39), both at once. In this painting, which opens the exhibition, the saint is shown alone in a stone cell, clutching a skull and lost in a trance. It is a compositionally daring image of stillness and intensity in which religiosity is reduced – or expanded perhaps – to its essence. Zurbarán used only browns, ochres and greys and left Francis’s face almost entirely lost in the shadow of his hood: the saint’s eyes can be read, but only by peering hard into his face. However, the shaft of light that illuminates his hands, nose and mouth makes the scene less a moment of devotion than of revelation. When the gallery acquired the painting in 1853, one critic, fired with anti-Catholicism, described it as “a small, black, repulsive picture”. And yet, when it is encountered in low light, the visitor is confronted not with a painting but, for a moment at least, a living man.

Like Zurbarán, Caravaggio chose an imaginative depiction rather than an illustration taken from one of the Lives of the saint. Perhaps his first religious painting, which might explain its unusually modest size, is Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy (circa 1595). In it, his tenebrism is less austere than the Spaniard’s and the scene infinitely more tender, although just as potent. It depicts Francis in the moments after he received the stigmata, collapsed in an exhausted faint. He is supported by a cradling angel who looks on him with an expression of infinite love and holds his corded belt, as if he has caught him in the act of falling. Meanwhile, the limp hand of the insensible saint points towards the hole in his side – a simulacrum of the spear thrust that killed Christ. Caravaggio chose not to show the nail marks in Francis’s hands and feet the better to condense the emotion and focus the eye on the dead centre of the painting. In reality, according to the friars who attended him, Francis’s holy marks were wounds that bled and needed dressing for the last two years of his life.

The receiving of the stigmata was a favoured scene with artists and by the time Altdorfer painted it in 1507, set in a Bavarian forest, there was already a convention, started by Giotto in the late 13th century, that the marks were transmitted like laser beams, shooting out from the floating seraph to pierce the saint. The exhibition also displays Marvel Comics’ Francis, Brother of the Universe (1980), in which this transference is given a Roy Lichtenstein treatment, with the saint literally blasted backwards and grunting “UUHHH” as the rays strike. The vision on La Verna is here a superhero confrontation, while in El Greco’s version of 1590-95 – one of 135 images of the saint made by the painter and his studio – the experience is internalised: the attenuated and moist-eyed Francis looks up to the vision, which is a formless swirl of cloud and light. An ordeal has become a hallucination.

Dotted among the paintings and sculptures in the exhibition are a series of relics – including a horn given to Francis by the Sultan and one of the saint’s cross-shaped, rough-weave habits. This simple costume, tied by a cord with three knots, is a feature of almost all depictions of the saint. It was a motif taken up by Alberto Burri, a artist born within a few miles of Assisi, and a precursor of the Arte Povera (“poor art”, a reference to the use of everyday materials) movement. Burri, like Francis, had once been a soldier and his Sacco (Sack), 1953, mixes hessian, stitching and a hole filled with red paint as an explicit reference to the Franciscans’ habit and the saint’s wound. It is hung next to a second Zurbarán painting of Francis in which the ragged cloth is given precedence.

Of course, the greatest of all Franciscan artworks could not be brought to London – the Lower and Upper Basilicas at Assisi. The churches, filled with works by the early-Renaissance masters and a hugely influential fresco cycle showing the life of the saint conceived and part-executed by Giotto, are proof of both Francis’s immediate impact and something borne out by this surprising and thoughtful exhibition – how the life and example of this radical figure served artists as faithfully as the man himself served the poor.

“Saint Francis of Assisi”, National Gallery, London WC2, until 30 July

[See also: A history of Spain in 150 objects]

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This article appears in the 17 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Left Power List