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flock of sheep, cruelly seized and bound the servants of God ...
having in many ways afflicted and oppressed them, they were ...
according to the holy man's desire, brought into the presence of
the Sultan. And being questioned by that prince whence and for
what purpose they had come ... the servant of Christ, being
enlightened from on high, answered him thus: 'If thou and thy
people will be converted to Christ I will willingly abide with
thee. But if thou art doubtful whether or not to forsake the law
of Mohamed for the faith of Christ, command a great fire to be
lighted, and I will go into it with thy priests, that it may be
known which faith should be held to be the most certain and the
most holy.' To whom the Sultan made answer: 'I do not believe
that any of my priests would be willing to expose himself to the
fire or to endure any manner of torment in defence of his faith.'
Then said the holy man: 'If thou wilt promise me for thyself and
thy people that thou wilt embrace the worship of Christ if I come
forth unharmed, I will enter the fire alone.' ... But the Sultan
answered that he dared not accept this challenge, because he
feared a sedition of the people."

This subject, from its dramatic interest, appealed to Giotto, giving
full scope to his powers, both as a story-teller, and as a painter
with such genius for portraying dignity and nobility of character. The
principal persons, the Sultan and St. Francis, are here clearly placed
before us as Giotto wished us to conceive them, and how correctly he
realised their characters we learn from the chronicles of the time.
"We saw," writes Jacques de Vitry in one of his letters, "Brother
Francis arrive, who is the founder of the Minorite Order; he was a
simple man, without letters, but very lovable and dear to God as well
as to men. He came while the army of the Crusaders was under
Damietta, and was much respected by all." This is indeed the man
depicted by Giotto in the slight figure of the preacher standing at
the foot of the marble throne, so humble, yet full of that secret
power which won even the Sultan's admiration. But though the story
centres in St. Francis, the person Giotto wishes all to notice is the
Sultan, who, far from being an ignorant heathen to be converted,
conveys the idea of a most noble and kingly person, Malek Camel in
short, known throughout the East as the "Perfect Prince." His mollahs
had wished to kill St. Francis and his companion, and the fine answer
he made was worthy of his high character. "Seigneurs," he said,
addressing his visitors, "they have commanded me by Mahomet and by the
law to have your heads cut off. For thus the law commands; but I will
go against the order, or else I should render you bad guerdon for
having risked death to save my soul."

Giotto has chosen the most dramatic moment when St. Francis offers to
go through the ordeal by fire with the mahommedan priests, to prove
the power of the Christian God. With one look back upon the fire the
mollahs gather their robes around them and hurriedly leave the
Sultan's presence; St. Francis points towards the flames as though he
were assuring the Sultan that they will not hurt him, while the friar
behind gazes contemptuously after the retreating figures of the
mollahs.

Dante and Milton in their different ways were able to give us a vivid
idea of fire, flame and heat, and so would Giotto have done had he
expressed his ideas by words instead of in painting; but he was wise
enough not to attempt it in his fresco, and so in lieu of a blaze of
crimson flames we have only what looks like a stunted red cypress,
realistic enough to make us understand the story without drawing our
attention away from the main interest of the scene. In this fresco we
are again reminded of the simple methods, grand and impressive by
their very straightforwardness, by which he brings before us so
strange a scene and accentuates the importance of an event in his own
individual way.

12. _Ecstasy of St. Francis._

This legend is not recounted by St. Bonaventure, Celano, or in _The
Three Companions_, but there is a tradition of how St. Francis one day
in divine communion with God, was wrapt in ecstasy and his companions
saw him raised from the ground in a cloud. All that is human in the
scene Giotto has done as well as possible, but he evidently found it
hard to realise how St. Francis would have looked rising up in a
cloud, so he has devoted himself to rendering truthfully the
astonishment of the disciples who witness the miracle.

13. _The Institution of the Feast at Greccio._

"... in order to excite the inhabitants of Greccio to commemorate
the nativity of the Infant Jesus with great devotion, he
determined to keep it with all possible solemnity; and lest he
should be accused of lightness or novelty, he asked and obtained
the permission of the sovereign Pontiff. Then he prepared a
manger, and brought hay, an ox and an ass to the place appointed.
The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest
resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made
glorious by many brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise.
The man of God stood before the manger, full of devotion and
piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; many masses were
said before it, and the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis, the
Levite of Christ.... A certain valiant and veracious soldier,
Master John of Greccio, who, for the love of Christ, had left the
warfare of this world, and become a dear friend of the holy man,
affirmed that he beheld an Infant marvellously beautiful sleeping
in that manger, whom the blessed Father Francis embraced with
both his arms, as if he would awake him from sleep."

Besides the wonderful way in which Giotto has succeeded, to use the
words of Mr Roger Fry, "in making visible, as it were, the sudden
thrill which penetrates an assembly at a moment of supreme
significance," there is the further interest of knowing that the scene
of the Nativity arranged by St. Francis at Greccio, was the first of
the mystery plays represented in Italy which were the beginning of the
Italian drama. Giotto makes not only Master John of Greccio see the
miracle of the Holy Child lying in the saint's arms and smiling up
into his face, but also those who accompany him and some of the
friars, while the other brethren, singing with mouths wide open like
young birds awaiting their food, are much too occupied to notice what
passes around them. A group of women, their heads swathed in white
veils, are entering at the door, and the whole scene is one of
animation and festivity. The marble canopy, with tall marble columns
and gabled towers, over the altar is one of Giotto's most exquisite
and graceful designs. But Giotto the shepherd has not succeeded so
happily in depicting an ox which lies at the saint's feet like a
purring cat.

14. _The Miracle of the Water._

"Another time, when the man of God wished to go to a certain
desert place, that he might give himself the more freely to
contemplation, being very weak, he rode upon an ass belonging to
a poor man. It being a hot summer's day, the poor man, as he
followed the servant of Christ, became weary with the long way
and the steep ascent, and beginning to faint with fatigue and
burning thirst, he called after the saint: 'Behold,' he said, 'I
shall die of thirst unless I can find a little water at once to
refresh me.' Then without delay the man of God got off the ass,
and kneeling down with his hands stretched out to heaven, he
ceased not to pray till he knew he was heard."

Giotto has here rendered the aridity of the summit of La Vernia, its
pinnacles of rocks with stunted trees. Two friars, by now quite
accustomed to miracles, converse together as they lead the donkey from
which St. Francis has dismounted to pray that the thirsty man's wishes
may be gratified. The grouping of the figures repeat the pointed lines
of the landscape, and the whole is harmonious and of great charm of
composition. It was justly admired by Vasari, who thought the peasant
drinking was worthy of "perpetual praise." Florentine writers were
continually harping on what they considered to be Giotto's claim to
immortality, his genius for portraying nature so that his copy seemed
as real as life, an opinion shared by Vasari when he gives his reason
for admiring this particular fresco. "The eager desire," he says,
"with which the man bends down to the water is portrayed with such
marvellous effect, that one could almost believe him to be a living
man actually drinking."

Over the door is a medallion of the Madonna and Child which once was
by Giotto, but now, alas, the eyes of faith must see his handiwork
through several layers of paint with which restorers have been allowed
to cover it. A slightly sardonic smile has been added to the Madonna,
and to appreciate what is left of her charm it is necessary to look at
her from the other end of the church, where the beauty of line and
composition can still be discerned notwithstanding the barbarous
treatment she has undergone.

15. _St. Francis Preaching to the Birds at Bevagna._

"When he drew near to Bevagna, he came to a place where a great
multitude of birds of different kinds were assembled together,
which, when they saw the holy man, came swiftly to the place, and
saluted him as if they had the use of reason. They all turned
towards him and welcomed him; those which were on the trees bowed
their heads in an unaccustomed manner, and all looked earnestly
at him, until he went to them and seriously admonished them to
listen to the Word of the Lord.... While he spoke these and
other such words to them, the birds rejoiced in a marvellous
manner, swelling their throats, spreading their wings, opening
their beaks, and looking at him with great attention."

This theme has been treated by another artist in the Lower Church,
with little success as we have seen; it is also sometimes introduced
in the predellas of big pictures of the school of Cimabue; but it
remained for Giotto to give us a picture as beautiful in colour as
those left by the early chroniclers in words. He never painted it
again on a large scale, and the small representation in the predella
of the picture in the Louvre follows the Assisan fresco in every
detail. Two friars whose brown habits are tinted with mauve, one tree,
a blue, uncertain landscape and some dozen birds, are all he thought
necessary to explain the story, and yet the whole poetry of St.
Francis' life is here, the keynote of his character, which has made
him the most beloved among saints, and the man who though poor,
unlettered and often reviled, was to herald the coming of a new age in
religion, art and literature. With what love he bends towards his
little feathered brethren as he beckons them to him, and they gather
fearlessly round him while he points to the skies and tells them in
simple words their duties towards their Creator.

Another Florentine, Benozzo Gozzoli, painted this subject; there
across the Assisan valley at Montefalco we can see it. His birds are
certainly better drawn, there are more of them too, and we can even
amuse ourselves by distinguishing among them golden orioles,
blackbirds, doves and wood pigeons, but no one would hesitate to say
that real charm and poetry are missing. Giotto's fresco, painted 600
years ago, is somewhat faded and many of the birds are partly effaced,
but we do not feel it matters much what they are - we only love the
fact that St. Francis called the Umbrian birds around him and preached
them a sermon with the same care as if he had been in the presence of
a pope, and that Giotto believed the legend and took pains with his
work, intending that we also should believe and understand something
of the sweetness of this Umbrian scene.

16. _Death of the Knight of Celano._

"When the holy man came into the soldier's house all the family
rejoiced greatly to receive this poor one of the Lord. And before
he began to eat, according to his custom, the holy man offered
his usual prayers and praises to God, with his eyes raised to
heaven. When he had finished his prayer, he familiarly called his
kind host aside, and said to him: 'Behold, my host and brother,
in compliance with thy prayers I have come to eat in thy house.
But now attend to that which I say to thee, for thou shalt eat no
more here, but elsewhere. Therefore, confess thy sins with truly
penitent contrition; let nothing remain in thee unrevealed by
true confession, for the Lord will requite thee to-day for the
kindness with which thou hast received His poor servant.' The
good man believed these holy words, and disclosing all his sins
in confession to the companion of St. Francis, he set all his
house in order, making himself ready for death, and preparing
himself for it to the best of his power. They then sat down to
table, and the others began to eat, but the spirit of the host
immediately departed, according to the words of the man of God,
which foretold his sudden death."

This is one of the most characteristic of Giotto's works, showing his
power, unique at that time, of touching upon human sorrow with
simplicity, truth and restraint. Here is no exaggerated gesture of
grief, no feigned expression of surprise or false note to make us
doubt the truth of the tragedy that has befallen the house of Celano.
But the movement of the crowd of sorrowing people, the men gazing down
on the dead knight, the women weeping, their fair hair falling
about their shoulders, tell better than any restless movement the
awful grief which fills their hearts. It has happened so suddenly that
the friar still sits at table with his fork in his hand, while St.
Francis hast just risen to go to the people's assistance, while a man
in the Florentine dress turns to him seeming, from the gesture of his
hand, to say: "See, your prophecy has been fulfilled but too soon."

[Illustration: DEATH OF THE KNIGHT OF CELANO
(D. ANDERSON - _photo_)]

17. _St. Francis preaches before Honorius III._

"Having to preach on a certain day before the Pope and the
cardinals, at the suggestion of the Cardinal of Ostia he learned
a sermon by heart, which he had carefully prepared; when he was
about to speak it for their edification he wholly forgot
everything he had to say, so that he could not utter a word. He
related with true humility what had befallen him, and then,
having invoked the aid of the Holy Spirit, he began at once to
move the hearts of these great men...."

In this fine fresco Giotto has represented St. Francis holding his
audience as though spell-bound by the power of his eloquence, and the
contrast is great between the charming figure of the saint and that of
the stern and earnest Pope, who, deep in thought, is leaning his chin
on his hand, perhaps wondering at the strange chance which has brought
the slight brown figure, so dusty and so poorly clad, so ethereal and
so eloquent, into the midst of the papal court. It is delightful to
study the faces and gestures of the listeners; some are all enthusiasm
and interest, like the charming young cardinal in an orange-tinted
robe, whose thoughts seem to be far away following where St. Francis'
burning words are leading them; but the older man gazes critically at
the saint, perhaps saying within himself: "What is this I hear, we
must give up all, our fat benefices, our comfortable Roman palaces, to
follow Christ"; and the cardinal on the right of the Pope also seems
surprised at the new doctrines of love, poverty and sacrifice. Four
others lean their heads on their hands; but how varied are the
gestures, from the Pope, all eagerness and keen attention, to the
cardinal bowing his head sadly thinking, like the man of great
possessions, how pleasant it would be to become perfect, but how
impossible it is to leave the goods of this world. St. Francis'
companion is seated at his master's feet as though affirming, "I
follow his teaching, and all he says is right."

18. _The Apparition of St. Francis._

"For when the illustrious preacher and glorious Confessor,
Anthony, who is now with Christ, was preaching to the brethren in
the chapel at Arles on the title upon the Cross - 'Jesus of
Nazareth, the King of the Jews' - a certain friar of approved
virtue named Monaldus, casting his eyes by divine inspiration
upon the door of the chapter-house, beheld, with his bodily eyes,
the blessed Francis raised in the air, blessing the brethren,
with his arms outstretched in the form of a Cross."

The friars sit in various attitudes of somewhat fatigued attention
before St. Anthony who is standing, and none seem as yet to be aware
of the apparition of St. Francis, who appears at the open door under a
Gothic archway, the blue sky behind him. There is a strange feeling of
peace about the scene.

19. _The Stigmata._

"... On the hard rock,
'Twixt Arno and the Tiber, he from Christ
Took the last signet, which his limbs two years
Did carry...."[99]

This fresco is unhappily much ruined; enough however remains to trace
a close resemblance to Giotto's predella of the same subject now in
the Louvre, but where the solemnity of the scene is increased by the
saint being alone with the Seraph upon La Vernia.

* * * * *

It may be well here to give some of the various opinions as to the
authorship of these frescoes, though in this small book it is
impossible to go at all deeply into the subject. Some, following Baron
von Rumohr, hold that the only paintings in the Upper Church by
Giotto, are the two by the door, the _Miracle of the Water_ and the
_Sermon to the Birds_, while Messrs. Crowe and Cavalcaselle give also
the first of the series and the last five to him, but while "youthful
and feeling his way," and all the rest to Gaddo Gaddi, or maybe
Filippo Rusutti. Lastly, Mr Bernhard Berenson is of opinion that
Giotto's style is to be clearly traced from the first fresco, _St.
Francis honoured by the Simpleton_, to the nineteenth, _The Stigmata_;
and they show so much affinity to the work of the great Florentine in
Sta. Croce and elsewhere, that it is impossible not to agree with him.
In the remaining frescoes, representing the death and miracles of St.
Francis, he sees a close resemblance to the work of the artist who
painted in the chapel of St. Nicholas (Lower Church), and who may have
aided Giotto in the Upper Church before being chosen to continue his
master's work.

20. _Death of St. Francis._

"The hour of his departure being at hand, he commanded all the
brethren who were in that place to be called to him, and
comforted them with consoling words concerning his death,
exhorting them with fatherly affection to the divine love....
When he had finished these loving admonitions, this man, most
dear to God, commanded that the Book of the Gospels should be
brought to him, and ... his most holy soul being set free and
absorbed in the abyss of the divine glory, the blessed man slept
in the Lord."

This fresco has suffered from the damp and all that clearly remains
are the angels, in whom the artist's feeling for graceful movement is
shown, their flight down towards the dead recalling the rush of the
swallows' wings as they circle in the evening above the towers of San
Francesco.

21. _The Apparitions of St. Francis._

"... Brother Augustine, a holy and just man, was minister of the
Friars at Lavoro: he being at the point of death, and having for
a long time lost the use of speech, exclaimed suddenly, in the
hearing of all who stood around: 'Wait for me, Father, wait for
me; I am coming with thee....'

"At the same time the Bishop of Assisi was making a devout
pilgrimage to the church of St. Michael, on Mount Gargano. To him
the Blessed Francis appeared on the very night of his departure,
saying: 'Behold I leave the world and go to Heaven.'"

In one fresco the artist has represented two different scenes, the
greater prominence being given to the dying friar surrounded by many
brethren. In neither is shown the figure of St. Francis, as the artist
probably thought that it would have been difficult to introduce the
apparition twice. But while the gesture of the friar stretching out
his arms and the arrangement of the others explain the story, it would
be difficult, without St. Bonaventure's legend, to know the feelings
of the bishop who is so calmly sleeping in the background.

22. _The Incredulous Knight of Assisi._

"... when the holy man had departed from this life, and his
sacred spirit had entered its eternal house ... many of the
citizens of Assisi were admitted to see and kiss the Sacred
Stigmata. Among these was a certain soldier, a learned and
prudent man, named Jerome, held in high estimation in the city,
who, doubting the miracle of the Sacred Stigmata, and being
incredulous like another Thomas, more boldly and eagerly than the
rest moved the nails in the presence of his fellow-citizens, and
touched with his own hands the hands and feet of the holy man;
and while he thus touched these palpable signs of the wounds of
Christ, his heart was healed and freed from every wound of
doubt."

This fresco is so much ruined that it is difficult to enjoy it as a
whole, but some of the figures of the young acolytes bearing lighted
torches, and the priests reading the service and sprinkling the body
with holy water, are very life-like.

23. _The Mourning of the Nuns of San Damiano._

"Passing by the church of St. Damian, where that noble virgin,
Clare, now glorious in heaven, abode with the virgins her
sisters, the holy body, adorned with celestial jewels [the marks
of the Stigmata], remained there awhile, till those holy virgins
could see and kiss them."

This, the loveliest of the last nine frescoes, recalls the one in St.
Nicholas' Chapel of the three prisoners imploring the saint's
protection; even to the basilica which forms the background of both.
Considering that it is the last farewell of St. Clare and her
companions to St. Francis the artist might have given a more tragic
touch to the scene, but all is made subservient to the rendering of
graceful figures, like the charming nuns who talk together as they
hasten out of San Damiano, whose humble fa√Іade of stone the artist has
transformed into a building of marble and mosaic almost rivalling the
glories of such cathedrals as Siena and Orvieto. St. Clare stoops to
kiss the saint while priests and citizens wait to resume their hymns
of praise, and a small child climbs up a tree and tears down branches
to strew upon the road in front of the bier.[100]

24. _The Canonisation of St. Francis._

"The Sovereign Pontiff, Gregory IX, ... determined with pious
counsel and holy consideration to pay to the holy man that
veneration and honour of which he knew him to be most worthy ...
and coming himself in person to the city of Assisi in the year of
our Lord's Incarnation, 1228, on Sunday the 6th of July, with
many ceremonies and great solemnity, he inscribed the Blessed
Father in the catalogue of the saints."

This fresco is so ruined that it is impossible to form any idea of its
composition; about the only object clearly to be seen is the
sepulchral urn of St. Francis, represented beneath an iron grating in
the church of San Giorgio.

25. _The Dream of Gregory IX, at Perugia._

"On a certain night, then, as the Pontiff was afterwards wont to
relate with many tears, the Blessed Francis appeared to him in a
dream, and with unwonted severity in his countenance, reproving
him for the doubt which lurked in his heart, raised his right
arm, discovered the wound, and commanded that a vessel should be
brought to receive the blood which issued from his side. The
Supreme Pontiff still in vision, brought him the vessel, which
seemed to be filled even to the brim with the blood which flowed
from his side."

We are here left with an impression that the artist was hampered by
not having enough figures for his composition, and the four men seated
on the ground and guarding the Pope, compare unfavourably with
Giotto's fresco of the three grand watchers by Innocent III, upon the
opposite wall.

16. _St. Francis cures the Wounded Man._


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Online LibraryLina Duff GordonThe story of Assisi → online text (page 17 of 26)