The Life of St Francis and his Representation in Art

Francis was born in Assisi in 1182, the son of the wealthy cloth merchant Piero Bernadone. Though he was baptized Giovanni, or John, he was called Francesco due to his particular love of the French language and courtly culture. During the battles to create a republic of Assisi, Francis was held captive in Perugia between 1202 and 1203. While imprisoned, he suffered a severe illness and this brought about an inner change which led him to resolve deliberately to renounce his inheritance from his father and embrace a life of poverty.

In 1206, in the small ruined church of San Damiano outside Assisi, St Francis heard a call from God. The crucified Christ spoke to him in prayer and required him to rebuild his ruined house. Thereupon, Francis sold his father's bales of cloth and used the money to rebuild the chapels of San Damiano, San Pietro della Spina and Portiuncula. Between 1207 and 1209, he lived the life of a hermit in the Portiuncula, a small chapel outside the gates of medieval Assisi. The Carthusian community developed into the order of the Minorites, or First Order of Franciscans. Today the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, built around the Portiuncula by Pope Pius V (1566-1572), is still a popular destination for numerous pilgrims.

In 1209, Pope Innocent III was prompted by a dream to verbally confirm the rule of the Minorites: St Francis had appeared to him, and had prevented the imminent collapse of the Lateran church. The written confirmation of the rule was made by his successor, Pope Honorius III, in 1223.

Between 1213 and 1215, Francis lived as an itinerant preacher in southern France. As such he became so popular that he was nicknamed "God's troubadour and minnesinger". In 1219 St Francis went to undertake missionary work in the Near East, where he survived the sultan of Egypt's trial by fire. In order to prove the true faith, he walked through fire before the eyes of the sultan and his Muslim priests. During the following year, St Francis returned to his native land. There, due to the dissension amongst his friars as to the interpretation of the order's rule, he resigned as superior and in 1221 founded the so-called Third Order of Franciscans (Tertiaries) for lay brothers, as well as the Order of the Poor Ladies (Poor Clares), the Second Order, in 1222. The latter are named after St Clare of Assisi (1193/94-1253), who left her parents' home and was made a nun by St Francis.

In 1222 St. Francis went to live in the seclusion of the Tuscan monastery of Alverna (La Verna), where in 1224 he received the stigmata, the wounds of Christ, which he concealed during the rest of his life and which were only revealed on his death bed. After receiving the stigmata, numerous miracles and healings followed. In 1226 St Francis died and was buried in his native city. Immediately after he was canonized in 1228, work started on the building of the church of San Francesco above his grave.

Representation and Iconography

St Francis' iconography is vast. Among saints who were not apostles with Christ, only his companion St Antony of Padua has a comparable number of depictions. Unlike St Antony's, however, St Francis' imagery is not confined to the domain of popular piety, but has been highly influential in the evolution of art and iconography in general.

He is always shown wearing the homespun robe of the Franciscans, tied round his waist with the three-knotted cord, which evokes the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience (Zurburán, 1645, Musée des Beaux Arts, Lyon). He is identifiable by the stigmata on his hands and feet as well as his chest wound, often visible through a gash in his habit. Artists occasionally show rays of light emanating from his wounds to stress their Christ-like nature. Early on, St Francis is depicted with a beard, but for Giotto (who devoted a large part of his output to the saint) he is clean-shaven and remains so until the sixteenth century. The art of the Counter-Reformation transformed him back into a bearded saint who had become less outgoing and more sorrowful (Pedro de Mena, 1663, wooden polychrome statue, Toledo Cathedral). Episodes from all periods of his life have provided source material for images in every shape and form.

Beginning in Italy, his iconography had spread throughout Christendom by the end of the middle ages: cycles often follow his life story as described by Thomas of Celano and above all by St Bonaventura (Giotto, c.1295, Upper Church of St Francis, Assisi; Sassetta, cycle, 1437-44, panels in National Gallery, London; Borgo San Sepolcro, Siena; Berenson Collection, Florence, etc.). He is depicted being born in a stable like Christ; renouncing his father's inheritance (in such scenes he can be shown naked: Giovanni di Paolo [attributed], c.1440, illustration for The Divine Comedy); engaging in a mystic marriage with Lady Poverty (Ottavino Nelli, second quarter of the fifteenth century, Vatican Gallery) and performing all kinds of miracles. Pope Innocent III is shown approving his rule; the Sultan of Egypt receives him during his travels (Fra Angelico, first half of the fifteenth century, Lindenau Museum, Altenburg, Germany); and St Dominic embraces him fraternally. He is represented creating a crib in Greccio in remembrance of his pilgrimage to Bethlehem, preaching to the birds, and taming a wolf which had been terrorizing the town of Gubbio (Sassetta, flfteenth century, National Gallery, London).

Two episodes have received particular attention from artists and makers of religious images: the impression of the stigmata at Mount La Verna (Giotto, 1300, Louvre, Paris) and his death at the Portiuncula. In the stigmatization, the Christ-seraph is on the Cross and streams of blood or golden beams emanate from his wounds and extend down into the saint's body. There is often a single witness to the events, Friar Leon, who is shown half asleep or blinded by the light (Hans Fries, 1501, Alte Pinakothek, Munich), while Francis himself is in ecstasy (Giovanni Bellini, 1470s, Frick Collection, New York; a late baroque version in Brazil shows the extent and continuance of the tradition, Manoel da Costa da Ataáde, 1816-17, Săo Francesco, Mariana). The saint's death gave rise to more conventional imagery (Bartolomé Carducho, 1593, Museu Nacional, Lisbon): surrounded by his brothers fervently kissing his stigmata, a sanctified St Francis lies peacefully. Angels come and carry off his soul to heaven and occasionally St Clare is shown bending over his body like Mary at the Pietŕ.