(b. ca. 1420, Firenze, d. 1497, Pistoia)
Scenes from the Life of St Francis (Scene 1, north wall)1452
Fresco, 304 x 220 cm
Apsidal chapel, San Francesco, Montefalco
The first scene shows three events from the saint's life: on the left the Birth of St Francis, in the centre the Prophecy of the Birth by a Pilgrim and on the right the Homage of the Simple Man. A wall of houses towering up in the centre separates the Birth of St Francis from the other two simultaneous scenes. The first takes place inside a building and is determined by the contrasting appearance of the kneeling, sitting and stooping women who are surrounding the child together with an ox and ass. On the left edge of the picture a woman in a red dress is supporting the saint's mother. The circular arrangement on the right conveys an intimacy from which the other two women almost seem to be excluded. The vertical and diagonal compositional lines, which are created by the arrangement of the figures and the architecture of the space, meet in the figure of the holy child, which thereby becomes the centre of the composition.
By means of disparities between the spatial and figural scale in the two following scenes, Benozzo creates differing levels of time. Francis' mother is standing at the top of a flight of steps. with her raised hands she is turning away the holy man who is identified as a pilgrim by his staff and bag. This meeting - chronologically the earliest event - is emphasized by the lines of the sloping roof and floor tiles, which converge compositionally at the mother's raised hands. It would be difficult to understand this scene if it were not for the explanatory inscription beneath: QUALITER B. F. FUIT DENU(N)TIATUS A XRO I(N) FORMA PEREGRINI QUOD DEBEBAT NASCI SICUT IPS(E) IN STAB(U)LO QUALIT(ER) QUIDA(M) FATUU(S) P(RO)STE(R)NEBAT B. F. VESTIME(N)TU(M) IN VIA - "How St. Francis was announced by Christ in the form of a pilgrim, and that he, like Christ himself, had to be born in a stable. And how a certain simple man spread his clothes out where St Francis was walking." It is Christ himself, therefore, who is heralding the birth of St Francis in the form of a pilgrim.
On the right an event from the saint's youth has been added. The young Francis is walking along the street accompanied by a boy. Though further in the background than the two figures on the steps, the two figures are depicted proportionally larger. In the foreground of the picture on the right, a poorly clad man is kneeling, looking up to the small window in the palazzo. He is laying his cloak at the feet of Francis. The direction in which the beggar is looking and the right hand that the saint has raised to fend him off indicate the real reason for the homage: it is not directed at the smartly dressed, youthful Francis, but the new-born child, who like Christ was born in sparse surroundings. In official descriptions of his life, the birth of Francis is not mentioned. Only the "Vita e Fioretti", a legend dating from the 14th century which was not included in the official canon of legends about St Francis, describes his birth in a stable. For that reason, this rarely depicted scene is also missing from the cycle of St Francis in Assisi.
The ox and ass, as well as the Prophecy of the Birth by the holy man, are motifs which create direct links with the birth of Christ and the annunciation to Mary. Even at the beginning of the cycle, analogies are already being created between Christ and Francis. With the deviation from the chronological sequence of events in the picture, Gozzoli is achieving a heightening of the tension within the picture.