In which St. Francis preaches to the birds, tames a wolf and jumps the shark

What saint could be more endearing than St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals?  St. Francis (1182 – 1226) grew up as a rich, fashionable boy in Assisi, but a religious epiphany turned him from a dandy to a monk.  He “married” poverty, founded the Franciscan order of friars, and was a hugely influential religious figure.  St. Francis wrote appealingly simple and sincere songs of praise, and in his entreaties for people to respect nature and all living creatures, was what we now would call an environmentalist.  Though St. Francis does have a compelling biography, the folklore and legends surrounding him are what really makes him loveable.  Generations of artists obviously share my opinion, producing unending St. Francis-themed works from frescoes to the ubiquitous bird-bath.

And so, attentive readers, where do you think HOB and I went to satisfy our taste for St. Francis art?   That’s right– we went on a St. Francis pilgrimage to Assisi: actually to Assisi, Arezzo and Gubbio.  In order to manage the sheer quantity of St. Francis related art, we concentrated on a few select St. Francis legends: Renunciation of Worldly Goods,  St. Francis Chases the Demons out of Arezzo, St. Francis Preaches to the Birds, St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio, and Stigmatization of St. Francis.

(The images of the artworks below are from Wikipedia and Web Gallery of Art).

Renunciation of Worldly Goods

GozolliRenunciation

By Benozzo Gozzoli, 1452, fresco in the Church of San Francesco, Montefalco, Italy

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By Sassetta, 1437 – 44, from the San Sepolcro Altarpiece,  National Gallery, London, UK

Renunciation_of_Wordly_Goods

By Giotto di Bondone, 1297 – 1300, fresco Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi, Italy

St. Francis was a good-times loving rich kid who suddenly turned his back on his frivolous and materialistic ways.  He sold off some of his cloth merchant father’s fabric to pay for repairs to a church and his pissed off dad confronted him publicly in the town’s central piazza.  So there was Rich Dad making a stink in front of all the townspeople of Assisi, yelling “Try that nonsense again kid and I’ll disinherit you!”  And St. Francis responded by handing over all his possessions to his father, including his clothes.  St. Francis was all “So there, take everything, I’m going to marry poverty and take care of lepers” and the townspeople had to hold Rich Dad back so he couldn’t hit his son.  The Bishop of Assisi stepped up to wrap his own cloak around St. Francis.

All three of these examples of the Renunciation of Wordly Goods are enjoyable, with the tension between the townspeople and the clergy, St. Francis’ discarded clothes (either on the ground or draped over Rich Dad’s arm), and especially the rendering of the buildings surrounding Assisi’s piazza.  My favorite is the Sassetta, because his St. Francis seems more cheeky than Giotto’s serious St. Francis and Gozzoli’s teen heartthrob.

stfrancisbasilica

This is Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi where we saw Giotto’s frescos cycle on the life of St. Francis.  You’ll notice that in the artworks above, many of Asissi’s buildings look pink.  I always thought that was weird, but then, when you look at this church, it does have a pink tone to it.

St. Francis Chases the Demons out of Arezzo

GiottoArezzo

By Giotto di Bondone, 1297 – 1300, fresco Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi, Italy

BenozzoGozzoliarezzo

By Benozzo Gozzoli, 1452, fresco in the Church of San Francesco, Montefalco, Italy

One day St. Francis and another monk visited Arezzo, which was falling into ruin due to civil dissent.  Things were so ugly that demons were dancing with excitement on the town walls.  Well, St. Francis wasn’t having any of it: he and his brother monk commanded the demons to leave, and then prayed away until those nasty devils were all gone.

Both Giotto and Gozzoli made fantastic renderings of this legend.  I adore Giotto’s version, with the steep town wall and flying demons over the jumbled up cityscape.  Both artists have a giant crack on the ground, as if the departing demons are causing an earthquake.

arezzo3

HOB is gawking at Piazza Grande in Arezzo.  See how much the buildings resemble the buildings from the frescoes above?  The Giotto is especially similar.  (In case you were wondering, we saw lots of great art, but not a single demon in Arezzo).

St. Francis Preaches to the Birds

StFranPreachetobirds

By Giotto di Bondone, 1297 – 99, fresco Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi, Italy

stfranci

By Bonaventura Berlinghieri, 1235, detail of an altarpiece from Church of San Francesco, Pescia, Italy

St. Francis often gave sermons to the birds, who he called “my little sisters the birds” and they apparently listened attentively.  Hey, didn’t I tell you this guy was endearing?

This is Giotto’s best work of the fresco cycle in Assisi, which was overall was somewhat disappointing in comparison to his masterpiece in the Scrovengni Chapel that we had previously visited in Padua.  St. Francis is so sweet and gentle preaching to those birds in front of the broccoli tree.  Berlinghieri’s rendering is strange (perspective WTF?) but super cute.

St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio

Sassettawolfjpg

By Sassetta, 1437 – 44, from the San Sepolcro Altarpiece,  National Gallery, London, UK

The people of Gubbio were once terrorized by a vicious wolf.  (Enlarge the Sassetta painting above to see the pile of wolf-chewed body parts to understand what kind of bad-ass wolf we’re talking about here).  Fortunately, St. Francis stopped by and, feeling sorry for the townspeople of Gubbio, went and had a chat with the wolf.  St. Francis explained to the wolf “So you’re really not such a bad guy–you just eat people because you’re hungry.  How about the folks in Gubbio feed you regularly and then you leave them alone?”  The wolf agreed to the terms, and with a hand/paw shake, the deal was sealed, and peace reigned in Gubbio.

Listen up, all world leaders reading my blog (come on, I know you’re out there): this is one of the greatest examples of diplomacy ever.  Why not hang a print of St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio on your office wall?  They next time you’re in a dicey situation, look at the painting and think, “What would St. Francis do?”.

stfrancisgubbio

In our snapshot of Gubbio, note how closely the building at the top of the hill with the crenelations resembles the building in Sassetta’s painting.

gubbiowolfWOB

I was not afraid of the wolf in Gubbio.

Stigmatization of St. Francis

StigmatizationofStFrancis

By Giotto di Bondone, 1297 – 1300, fresco Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi, Italy

crivelli

By Taddeo Crivelli, 1469, detail from an illuminated manuscript in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA

sasetta

By Sassetta, 1437 – 44, from the,  National Gallery, London, UK

St. Francis was praying in a mountain when a vision of a seraph on a cross appeared.  The seraph caused the stigmata (the five wound of Christ) to appear on St. Francis.  He carried these wounds for the rest of his life.

This is the point in the artistic legacy of St. Francis when my favorite saint jumps the shark.  Just in case you’re not familiar with the idiom “jumping the shark” let me briefly explain.  The American sitcom Happy Days ran from 1974- 84, and was generally consider to be a cool show until the infamous “Jumping the Shark” episode where the character Fonzie water-skies over a shark in a cage.  “Jumping the shark” is now a term used to describe a ridiculous plot device intended to increase ratings that fails and marks the beginning of the end of the show.  The moment St. Francis receives the stigmata, his cool factor fails and he jumps the shark, bound for artistic lameness.  (And just so no one gets their sanctimonious panties in a twist here, I’m talking about St. Francis art, not about the actual man).

Up to this point, I think of St. Francis as a sweet-natured man with an earthy spirituality, more sassy than serious.  The painful literalness the stigmata is totally out of character, and for the artists trying to depict this silly plot twist, an insurmountable challenge.  Giotto emerged as an artist at the tale end of the Byzantine influenced age, and in his Stigmatization of St. Francis, you can see his struggle to escape from the medieval tradition of static figures shown either from the front or sides.  Crivelli doesn’t fare much better: his St. Francis resembles a marionette operated by the stigmata-giving seraph.  And, oh dear, Sassetta’s Jazz Hand Stigmata is quite preposterous.

stfrancishouse

St. Francis’ former home in Assisi.

How we got to Assisi: bus fromPerugia

Where we slept: Camere Annalisa Martini.  Price: €42 for a double.  Recommended: yes.

How we got to Arezzo: train from Siena.

Where we slept: Hotel Piero della Francesca.  Price: €77 for a double.  Recommended: well, the hotel is great, but we only stayed here because our B&B cancelled on us at the last minute.  Try to find a place that’s cheaper and closer to the historical center.

How we got to Gubbio: bus fromPerugia

Where we slept: Residenza di via Piccardi.  Price: €50 for a double.  Recommended: yes.

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4 comments

  1. Francis was actually pretty extreme, at least in the biography by St. Bonaventure (which became the “official” one in the 14th century). He is humble to the point of self-abuse in that. The “jester of the lord” is more like the original biography by Thomas of Celano which comes out in the wonderful Sassetta panels in London.

    The greatest Stigmatisation is that over the Bardi Chapel in Santa Croce, Florence, by Giotto (I don’t think the Saint Francis Cycle in Assisi is by Giotto… there is a chance he may have been in the workshop and he certainly saw it but it is not the artistic personality we see in the chapel at Padua in 1306… I could go on about this for hours so I’ll stop here)

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    1. I did see that Stigmatisation in Santa Croce and agreed, it’s far superior to those in Assisi.

      I’ve look in to that biography you mention, thanks, and by all means, go on for hours–I’m nerdy so I’d enjoy reading it!

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      1. Well the politics about Giotto/Non-Giotto (after the classic article http://www.jstor.org/stable/867802) is now so heated between the Italians (who think Giotto painted EVERYTHING) and basically everyone else (who realise so little is documented by Giotto it’s difficult to tell who he is) is that it’s impossible to discuss the authorship of the Assisi frescoes without getting someone upset (although it’s probably painted by a bunch of Roman painters… we have so little medieval left in Rome after the Baroque refashionings it’s hard to prove such things).
        The new book “The Making of Assisi” by Cooper and Robson ignores the authorship debate completely to instead look at the circumstances of the scheme and the friars who commissioned it… I recommend it as a very exciting work of current art history.

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  2. Ah, while that explains why the frescoes in Assisi are so much less impressive than those in Padua. Thanks for the book recommendation–I’ll add it to my reading list.

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