By Dennis Raverty
The recent exhibition Saint Francis of Assisi, organized by the National Gallery in London, brought together painting, sculpture, and other media, including contemporary works, from various collections around the world that portrayed the life of this most popular of saints. It offered a rare opportunity to compare representations of Francis chronologically and cross-culturally through the eight centuries since his death.
Francis modeled a fully embodied approach to the spiritual life, by imitation of Christ’s poverty and suffering and ultimately by the physical marks of the stigmata on his body. Franciscans looked upon their founder’s scarred body as something like a sacrament, which led to an early interest in depicting the saint more realistically. Franciscan piety aimed at the heart, by showing the saints as people of their own times, fellow pilgrims of the spiritual life.
Francis conceived of the world not only as the site of temptation and corruption, but as a rich garden abounding in God’s grace. Some of his followers, like Bonaventure, later developed a complex understanding of the natural world as a place where divine mysteries are revealed. Similarly, the discovery and codification of the laws of perspective in the 15th century seemed to be a sign of the rational order underlying our perception of the world.
This combination of factors made Francis of Assisi perhaps the most widely depicted medieval person and contributed to a broader shift toward more representational art during the late Gothic and Renaissance periods in Italy, including an increasing sense of corporality. These developments will be traced here by briefly examining the evolution of figural style in depictions of the saint over the course of the three centuries between the death of the saint and the end of the Renaissance.
Among the earliest images of Francis in Italian art is a haunting painting by an anonymous artist from the late 13th century in the collection of the Vatican museums, which was not in the London exhibit (fig. 1). Executed in a style influenced by Byzantine icon painting, the figure of the saint, silhouetted against a gold background, is expressively distorted and highly abstracted; his enlarged eyes, long and slender nose, and small mouth resemble representations of Christ. This is not surprising because the saint was often referred to as the alter Christos and the “mirror” of Christ.
The folds in his garments fall in geometric patterns that seem almost independent of the body underneath; the knotted rope that girds him drops straight down as if against a flat surface. Even the book he holds is rendered in what almost seems to be reverse perspective. Francis is portrayed here as a disembodied, spiritualized being floating weightlessly in a spatially ambiguous, highly indeterminate field of gold. His feet never touch the ground. The saint appears to be not of this world.
A similarly disembodied compression of space can also be seen in a detail from the Bardi Saint Francis panel attributed to Coppo di Marcovoldo from around the same time (fig. 2). Here, the saint preaches before the sultan and his Islamic courtiers, who are represented as a field of same-size heads one above the other — even the sultan, enthroned on the right, as well as Francis and his companion on the left, are disembodied, schematic, and flat.
In stark contrast is the work of groundbreaking 14th-century painter Giotto di Bondone, in which Francis is shown with substantial weight and fully occupying illusionistic, three-dimensional space (fig. 3). The subject is a vision the saint experienced late in his life of a seraphic, winged, crucified Christ. It was during this vision that the saint is said to have received the stigmata, the bleeding wounds in his hands, feet, and side, the outward, physical sign of his mystical union with the body of Christ.
The weight and volume of his robust torso and limbs is evident in the strong modeling and consistent light source from the upper right, the saint’s garments falling in irregular folds that clearly reveal the masses of the body underneath. Moreover, the figure is shown in a landscape with a hermit’s hut and a small chapel, but these are not shown in proportion to the size of the saint, and the trees found here and there dotting the rocky landscape indicate a natural environment, yet the gold background betrays the flatness of the panel. It is as if the saint, asserting an almost sculptural solidity, inhabits the shallow space of a stage set or architectural niche. Despite having considerable gravitas, he casts no shadow.
In a composition inspired by Giotto from the early 15th century (fig. 4) by Stefano di Giovanni (known as Sassetta), the saint and his companion occupy a more realistic space informed by the use of linear perspective. A blue sky replaces the gold leaf background of the earlier painting, and the landscape, while still somewhat schematic, is much more believable, partly because the architecture is in proportion to the figures.
Yet despite its greater spatial plausibility, the artist has trouble positioning the winged figure in relationship to Saint Francis; the vision seems to be behind him in the sky like a cloud, even though the saint casts a shadow as if the vision were in front of him. This placement of the vision in space was not a problem for Giotto. Perspectival volume and three-dimensional spatial illusion increase naturalism but bring their own problems.
Giovanni Bellini’s Saint Francis in Ecstasy embodies both the Franciscan sense of poverty and its attitude toward nature, not only in the style and subject matter but also in its pristine, jewel-like oil glazing techniques (fig. 5). It was painted sometime in the last few decades of the 15th century, during the genesis of the High Renaissance in Italy.
It represents Francis alone at the mouth of his cave retreat. Having just stepped outside, he witnesses the early dawn as if it were an unexpected miracle. In the background we see the charming hilltop town of Assisi in central Italy from which he came. In Bellini’s version we do not witness the vision as in the earlier treatments. The saint’s hands bear the marks of the stigmata, but not yet his feet, as if the miracle were still in progress.
There is a nuanced coloristic dialogue between the warm amber underpainting and the cool gray-blue and brown transparent glazes he layers over this in articulating the main features of the landscape. But because cool colors typically seem to recede while warm colors appear to push forward, the muted yellow-orange underpainting almost gives the effect of the light coming from behind the picture, softly illumining the entire landscape and echoing the gentle light of the emergent dawn.
The attentiveness Bellini shows to every detail is typical of Netherlandish painting, but is somewhat rare in Italian art, in which the landscape setting is often minimal — just enough of a background to situate the figures in a believable space. Bellini’s landscape, however, is rendered in all its marvelous, minute, rich, naturalistic detail. And this truth to reality, with each leaf and blade of grass so lovingly rendered with all its imperfections, embodies the Franciscan reverence for nature that Bellini shares with the saint.
It was customary during the Italian Renaissance to idealize forms as a way of indicating the presence of divine grace. Images of Christ, his mother, and the saints would all resemble the idealized gods of the ancient Greco-Roman world, like Apollo and Aphrodite. Bellini’s St. Francis is a homely man of small stature, with a crooked nose and a balding pate, hardly the Adonis we might reasonably expect from an Italian master. But this lack of idealization is also in keeping with Franciscan humility. The modest saint as he is represented here is remarkably unbeautiful — not dominating the landscape but living harmoniously within nature’s bounty as brother and fellow creature.
In Bellini’s hands, not only the diminutive, homely saint, but also the animals, birds, plants, and even the sun are radiant, and the “poor,” commonplace materials used in making the picture — wood, oil, pigments, varnish (but not gold) — are transformed sacramentally, so the painting becomes a sort of “incarnational” witness revealing the graced potential not only in Francis, but in all living things.
During the last decade of the 16th century, the young Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio (who would soon invent the Baroque style), painted his version of Francis receiving the stigmata (fig. 6). Here Francis is shown in a landscape at night swooning after his miraculous vision in the arms of a winged angel rendered on a disproportionately large scale, yet with a gentle, youthful, almost feminine face. In the background, barely visible, is the saint’s companion, who has built a small fire against the last rays of the setting sun.
We feel the full weight of the saint as he collapses and his eyes roll back in his head deliriously. His coarse garments accentuate his heaviness, and contrast with the angel’s sheer radiant clothing. All of it is spotlighted for us as if it were a scene from an opera. The artist substitutes his own face for that of the saint in this painting, indicating that not only Christ, not only Francis as the alter Christus, but also the artist and by implication all of us, are likewise called to partake in this mystical union with the incarnate body of Christ.
Dr. Dennis Raverty is recently retired an associate professor of art history at New Jersey City University, and specializes in art of the 19th and 20th centuries.