(b. 1394, Siena, d. 1450, Siena)

The Stigmatisation of St Francis

Egg tempera on poplar, 88 x 52 cm
National Gallery, London

Stefano di Giovanni, known as Sassetta, was among the leading Sienese artists of the century. In 1437 he received one of the most extensive, and expensive, commissions in Sienese fifteenth-century painting: a double-sided polyptych for the church of San Francesco in Borgo San Sepolcro (the native town of his younger contemporary Piero della Francesca). The figures and the scenes were to be specified by the friars. The altarpiece was painted in sections for easy transport from Siena to Borgo San Sepolcro, where it was delivered in 1444. It was dismembered in 1752; in the nineteenth century surviving fragments were sold to various collections.

As far as its original appearance can now be reconstructed, this great Franciscan altarpiece, like Duccio's Maestà in Siena Cathedral, showed the Madonna and Child enthroned in the front main tier facing the congregation in the nave. The back, facing the friars in the choir, depicted Saint Francis Triumphant standing on Insubordination, Luxury and Avarice and surrounded by eight smaller scenes from his life ranged in two tiers on either side. Seven of these scenes are now in the National Gallery. The panel illustrated here is one of the best preserved. It shows one of the key events of Francis's life, cited in the process of his canonisation: the impression on his body of the five wounds of Christ. The miracle occurred on 14 September 1224 on La Verna. This forest-covered mountain near Arezzo, where he founded an eremetical convent, had been given to Francis in 1213; it is still a site of pilgrimage.

There are many textual sources for Francis's biography; Sassetta, however, almost certainly based his interpretation on artistic tradition. For example, the saint was alone when Christ appeared to him, but it had become customary in painting and sculpture to show his follower Brother Leo witnessing the event, as he is doing here, looking up in wonder from his book of devotions. Giotto had already depicted Saint Francis in the same pose, kneeling and raising his arms to the six-winged seraph-Christ. Sassetta is in many ways a paradoxical painter. Like Giovanni di Paolo and all other Sienese artists, he was deeply in thrall to his great Sienese predecessors of the fourteenth century, the followers of Duccio. He had studied Florentine art of the same period as well as of his own time. Around 1432 he became acquainted with French and northern Italian miniatures. Something of all these sources is evident here, in the ornamental forms of the trees, the unrealistic ledge-like rocks of the foreground and the oblique angle at which he sets the chapel nestling in the mountain - a fourteenth-century method of suggesting perspective.

At the same time as Sassetta emulated the decorative effects of archaic styles, he could not help but be influenced by the artistic advances of his day. Thus the supernatural light flooding La Verna from the seraph is virtually consistent throughout the painting. Mountain shadows darken the stuccoed façade of the chapel, with its Virgin and Child above the door; Saint Francis's cord belt casts a shadow on his habit, and his parted fingers on the ground behind his shoulder. The miracle - which has caused the wooden cross in the makeshift oratory to bleed and makes of Francis an 'alter Christus,' a second Christ - is felt throughout the natural world, a red sunset staining the Umbrian hills.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 33 minutes):
Michael Haydn: St Francis Mass