Mrs. (Anna) Jameson.

Legends of the monastic orders, as represented in the fine arts. Forming the second series of Sacred and legendary art online

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Online LibraryMrs. (Anna) JamesonLegends of the monastic orders, as represented in the fine arts. Forming the second series of Sacred and legendary art → online text (page 24 of 41)
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out the track of thought suggested to my own mind :
and though, as Wordsworth writes, —

" Nuns fret not at their convent's narrow room,
And hermits are contented with their cells,"

I could sometimes feel inclined to fret at the narrow
limits of artistic illustration within which I am bound.
But, without further pause, I must now endeavor to


show through what real or imaginary merits each has
earned his or her meed of glorification, and hy what
characteristic attributes they are to be recognized and
distinguished from each other.

*e l

St. Francis of Assisi.

Lat . Sanctus Franciscus, Pater Seraphicus. Ital. San Francesco
di Assisi. Fr. Saint Francois d' Assise. Oct. 4, 1226.

Habit, gray or dark brown, girded with a hempen cord. Attri-
butes : 1. The stigmata ; 2. The skull ; 3. The crucifix , 4. The
lily •, 5. The lamb.

The father of this famous saint, Pietro Bernardone
of Assisi, was a rich merchant, who traded in silk and
wool. His mother's name was Pica. He was christened
Giovanni ; but his father, who carried on large dealings
with Prance, had intended his eldest son to be his chief
agent and successor, and had him taught early to speak
the French language : this was, for the time and local-
ity, a rare accomplishment, and his companions called
him Francesco, — the Frenchman. The name superseded
his own, and remained to him through life ; by that
name he became celebrated, venerated, canonized ; and
it has since been adopted as a common baptismal name
through western Christendom.

Francis, in his boyish years, was remarkable only
for his vanity, prodigality, and love of pleasure. He
delighted especially in gay and sumptuous apparel ; but
he was also compassionate, as ready to give as to spend,
and beloved by his companions and fellow-citizens.
Tims passed the first fifteen or sixteen years of his life.
In a quarrel between the inhabitants of Assisi and those
of Perugia, they had recourse to arms. Francis was
taken prisoner, and remained for a year in the fortress
of Perugia ; on this occasion he showed both patience
and courage. On bis return home, he was seized with
a grievous fever, and languished for weeks and months
on a sick-bed. During this time his thoughts were


often turned towards God ; a consciousness of his sins,
a feeling of contempt for the world and its vanities,
sank deep into his mind. He had been brought in his
young years so near to death, that life itself took a
shade from the contemplation.

Soon after his recovery he went forth, richly dressed
as usual, and met a poor man, in filthy ragged gar-
ments, who begged an alms for the love of God. Fran-
cis, looking on him, recognized one who had formerly
been ranked with the richest and noblest of the city, and
had held a command in the expedition against Perugia.
Melted with compassion, he took off his rich dress, gave
it to the mendicant, and, taking the other's tattered
cloak, threw it round his own shoulders. That same
night, being asleep, he had a vision, in which he fancied
himself in a magnificent chamber, and all around were
piled up riches and jewels innumerable, and arms of
all kinds marked with the sign of the cross ; and in the
midst stood the figure of Christ, who said to him,
" These are the riches reserved for my servants, and
the weapons wherewith I arm those who fight in my
cause." And when Francis awoke, he thought that
Providence had intended him for a great captain, for
he knew not yet his true vocation. Soon afterwards he
went into the Church of San Damiano to pray. Now
this church which stands not far from the eastern gate
of Assisi, was then, as it is now, falling into ruin ; and
as he knelt before a crucifix, he heard in his soul a
voice which said to him, "Francis, repair my Church,
which falleth to ruin ! " He, not understanding the
sense of these words, believed that the church wherein
he knelt was signified ; therefore he hastened home, and
taking some pieces of cloth and other merchandise, sold
them and carried the money to the priests of San Da-
miano for the reparation of the chui'ch. Whereat his
father, being in great wrath, pursued him to bring him
back ; but Francis fled and hid himself for many days
in a cave, being in fear of his father. At length, taking
heart he came out and returned to the city ; but changed,


pallid, worn with hunger, his looks distracted, his gar-
ments soiled and torn, so that no one knew him, and
the very children in the streets pursued him as a mad-
man. These -and all other humiliations Francis now
regarded as the trials to which he was called, and which
were to usher him on his path to regeneration. His
father, believing him frantic, shut him up and hound
him in his chamber ; but his mother, having pity on
her own son, went and delivered him, and spoke to him
words of comfort, entreating him to have patience, and
to be obedient to his parents, and not to shame them
and all their kindred by his wild unseemly deportment.
As he persisted, his father took him before the bishop,
a mild and holy man ; and when Francis beheld the
bishop, he flung himself at his feet, and, abjuring at
once parents, home, heritage, he tore off his garments,
and flung them to his father, saying, " Henceforth I
recognize no father but Him who is in heaven ! " Then
the bishop wept with admiration and tenderness, and
ordered his attendants to give Francis a cloak to cover
him : it was of the coarsest stuff, being taken from a
beggar who stood by ; but Francis received it joyfully
and thankfully as the first-fruits of that poverty to which
he had dedicated himself.

He was then in his twenty-fifth year, and from that
time forth he lived as one who had cast away life.

His first care was to go to an hospital of lepers, to
whom he devoted himself with tender and unwearied
charity. This was in him the more meritorious, be-
cause previous to his conversion he could not look upon
a leper without a feeling of repugnance, which made
him sick even to faintness.

Then he went wandering over those beautiful Um-
brian mountains from Assisi to Gubbio, singing with a
loud voice hymns {alia Francese, as the old legend ex-
presses it, whatever that may mean), and praising God
for all things ; — for the sun which shone above ; for the
day and for the night ; for his mother the earth, aud for


his sister the moon ; for the winds which blew in his
face ; for the pure precious water, and for the jocund
fire ; for the flowers under his feet, and for the stars
above his head ; — saluting and blessing all creatures,
whether animate or inanimate, as his brethren and sis-
ters in the Lord.

Thus, in prayer, in penance, in charity, passed some
years of his life. He existed only on alms, begged
from door to door, and all but what sufficed to stay the
pangs of hunger was devoted to the reparation of the
church of San Damiano and other churches and chapels
in that neighborhood. Among these was a little chapel
dedicated to the " Queen of Angels," in the valley at
the foot of the hill on which Assisi stands. (S. Maria
degli Angeli.) Here he inhabited a narrow cell, and
the fame of his piety and humility attracted to him sev-
eral disciples. One day, being at mass, he heard the
text from St. Luke, " Take nothing for your journey,
neither staves, nor scrip, nor bread, nor money, nor two
coats" : and regarding this as an immediate ordinance,
he adopted it as the rule of his life. He was already
barefoot, poorly clad, a mendicant for the food which
sustained him. There was but one superfluity he pos-
sessed ; it was his leathern girdle. He threw it from
him, and took one of hempen cord, which being after-
wards adopted by his followers, they have been thence
styled by the people Cordeliers.

Having thus prepared himself for his mission in the
manner commanded in the Gospel, he set forth to preach
repentance, charity, humility, abnegation of the world,
— a new life, in short ; and everywhere he preached
without study, trusting that God would put into his
mind what he ought to utter for the edification of

It was, as I have said, a time of great and general
suffering, — of sorrow, and of change, — of mental and
moral ferment. Men's minds were predisposed to be
excited by the marvellous, and melted by the pathetic,
in religion ; and the words of Francis fell upon them


like sparks of fire upon the dry summer grass. Many,
excited to enthusiasm by his preaching, joined them-
selves to him ; and' among these his earliest disciples
four are especially mentioned and commemorated, —
Silvestro, Bernardo, Leo, and Giles (or Egidio). His
first female disciple was a maiden of noble family, Clara
d'Assisi, whose story I shall have to relate hereafter.

It being necessary to bind his followers together, and
to 4iim, by a rule of life which should be literally that
of the apostles, he made the first condition absolute
poverty ; his followers were to possess nothing, — hence
the picturesque allegory of his espousals with The Lady
Poverty, to which I shall have to return. Meantime,
to pursue the course of his life, he repaired to Rome to
obtain the sanction of the Pope for his new institution.
Innocent III. was too cautious to lend himself at first
to what appeared the extravagance of a fanatic enthusi-
ast. Francis, being repulsed, retired to the hospital of
St. Antony ; but that night, as is related by St. Bona-
ventura, the Pope was admonished by a dream in which
he beheld the walls of the Lateran tottering and about
to fall, while the poor enthusiast whom he had rejected
in the morning sustained the weight upon his shoulders.
The Pope on awaking sent for him, confirmed the rule
of his Order, and gave him a full dispensation to preach.
St. Francis then returned to his humble cell in the
Porzioncula,* and built other cells around for his disci-

* The term Porzioncula, which occurs so perpetually in refer-
ence to the pictures of St. Francis, is, I believe, sometimes mis-
understood. It means, literally, " a small portion, share, or
allotment." The name was given to a slip of laud, of a few acres
in extent, at the foot of the hill of Assisi, and on which stood a
little chapel •, both belonged to a community of Benedictines, who
afterwards bestowed the land and the chapel on the brotherhood
of St. Francis. This chapel was then familiarly known as the " Ca-
pella della Porzioncula." Whether the title by which it has since
become famous as the S. Maria-degli-Angeli (" Our Lady-of-An-
gels "), belonged to it originally, or because the angels were heard
singing around and above it at the time of the birth of St. Francis,
does not seem clear ; at all events, this chapel became early sancti-


pies. He gave to his followers the name of " Frati
Minori," to signify the humility and the submission en-
joined them, and that they should strive everywhere,
not for the first and highest place, but for the last and
lowest. They were not to possess property of any kind,
nor would he allow any temporal goods to be vested in
his Order : nor would he suffer during his life anv build-
ing or convent in it, that he might say with perfect
truth he possessed nothing. The spirit of Holy Poverty
was to be the spirit of his Order. He prescribed that
the churches built for them should be low and small,
and all their buildings of wood ; but, some representing
to him that wood is in many places dearer than stone, he
struck out this last condition. To extreme austerity he
joined profound humility of heart ; he was in his own
eyes the basest and most despicable of men, and desired
to be so reputed by all. If others commended him, he
replied humbly, " Wbat every one is in the eyes of God,
that I am and no more." He was endowed with what
his biographer calls an extraordinary "gift of tears";
he wept continually his own sins and those of others ;
and, not satisfied with praying for the conversion of the
heathen, he resolved to go and preach to the Mahome-
tans in Syria, and to obtain the crown of martyrdom :

fied as the scene of the ecstasies and visions of the saint : here
also St. Clara made her profession : particular indulgences were
granted to those who visited it for confession and repentance on
the 5th of August, and it became a celebrated place of pilgrimage
in the fourteenth century. Mr. Ford tells us that in Spain the
term Porzioncula is applied generally to distinguish the chapel
or sanctuary dedicated to St. Francis within the Franciscan
churches. The original chapel of the Porzioncula now stands
in the centre of the magnificent church which has been erected
over it. The church and chapel were both much injured by an
earthquake in 1832, but the chapel was restored from the old mate-
rials, and the exterior is adorned with frescos by Overbeck. It is
a small building, — might contain, perhaps, thirty persons ; but I
did not take the measurement . it looks small under the lofty dome
of the edifice which now encloses it, and also the "narrow cell"
near it, called the "Stanza di S. Francesco."


but he was driven back by a storm. Afterwards in
1214, he set forth to preach the Gospel in Morocco.
But in travelling through Spain he was stopped by-
sickness and other obstacles, so that he did not on this
occasion proceed to Africa; but, after performing many-
miracles in Spain, and founding many convents, he re-
turned to Italy.

Ten years after the first institution of his Order, St.
Francis held the first General Chapter in the plain at
the foot of the hill of Assisi. Five thousand of his
friars assembled on this occasion. This famous Chap-
ter is called, in the history of his Order, " The Chapter
of Mats," because they had erected booths covered with
mats to shelter them. They gave themselves no care
what they should eat or what they should drink, for the
inhabitants of Assisi, Spoleto, Perugio, and Foligno
supplied them with all they needed ; and such was the
general enthusiasm, that the Cardinal Protector Ugolino
(afterwards Gregory IX.), and Francis himself, were
obliged to moderate the austerities and mortifications
to which the friars voluntarily subjected themselves.
On this occasion he sent missionaries into various coun-
tries, reserving to himself Syria and Egypt, where he
hoped to crown his labors by a glorious martyrdom
for the cause of Christ. But it was not so ordered.

He arrived at Damietta, he penetrated to the camp
of the infidels, and was carried before the sultan. The
sultan asked him what brought him there % to which
he replied, that he had come there to teach him and his
people the way of eternal salvation. In order to prove
the truth of his mission, he desired that a fire should be
kindled, and offered to pass through it if the sultan
would command one of his Imaums to pass with him.
As the sultan refused this, Francis offered next to throw
himself into the fire, provided the sultan and all his
people would embrace Christianity. The sultan de-
clined this likewise; but looking on Francis with the
Oriental feeling of respect and compassion, as one idi-
otic or insane, he sent him back guarded to Damietta,


whence he returned to Italv without having the satisfac-
tion of either gaining a soul to Christ or shedding his
blood for his sake. As some amends for this disappoint-
ment he had the joy of hearing that five of his missiona-
ries, whom he had sent to Morocco, had there suffered
a cruel martyrdom.

Four years after his return, he obtained the confir-
mation of his Order from Pope Honorius ; resigned his
office of Superior, and retired to a solitary cave on
Monte Alverna (or Laverna). There he was visited
by ecstatic trances, by visions of the Virgin and our
Saviour, and it is said that he was sometimes raised
from the ground in a rapture of devotion. It was on
this occasion that he was favored with an extraordinary
vision, which I cannot venture to give otherwise than
in the words of his biographer. " After having fasted
for forty days in his solitary cell on Mount Alverna,
and passed the time in all the fervor of prayer and
ecstatic contemplation, transported almost to heaven by
the ardor of his desires, — then he beheld, as it were,
a serapli with six shining wings, bearing down upon
him from above, and between his wings was the form
of a man crucified. By this he understood to be
figured a heavenly and immortal intelligence, subject
to death and humiliation. And it was manifested to
him that he was to be transformed into a resemblance
to Christ, not by the martyrdom of the flesh, but by the
might and fire of Divine love. When the vision had
disappeared, and he had recovered a little from its effect,
it was seen that in his hands, his feet, and side he car-
ried the wounds of our Saviour."

Notwithstanding the interpretation which might easily
be given to this extraordinary vision, it has remained
an article of belief, on the testimony of St. Bonaventura,
that these wounds were not only real, but impressed by
supernatural power. The title of the Seraphic has
since been given to St. Francis and to his Order. He
wished to have concealed the favor which had been
vouchsafed to him ; but notwithstanding his precau-


tions, the last two years of his life became, in various
ways, a period of perpetual manifestation. He suffered
meantime much from sickness, pain, weakness, and
blindness caused by continual tears. He hailed the ap-
proach of death with rapture ; and desired, as a last
proof of his humility, that his body should be carried
to the common place of execution, a rock outside the
walls of Assisi, then called the CoIIe d' Inferno, and
buried with the bodies of the malefactors. He dictated
a last testament to his friars, in which he added to the
rule already given, that they should work with their
hands, not out of a desire of gain, but for the sake of
good example, and to avoid idleness. He commanded
that those who did not know how to work should learn
some trade. But Pope Nicholas III. afterwards abro-
gated this last precept.

When he felt the approach of death, he ordered him-
self to be laid upon the bare earth, and endeavored
with a trembling voice to recite the 141st Psalm : he
had reached the last verse, Bring my soul out of prison,
when he ceased to breathe. His body was carried to
the city of Assisi, and those who bore it paused on the
way before the Church of San Damiano, where Clara
and her nuns saluted it, and, weeping, kissed his hands
and his garments. It was then carried to the spot
which he had himself chosen, and which became from
that time consecrated ground.

Two years after his death, in the year 1228, he was
canonized by Gregory IX., and in the same year was
laid the foundation of that magnificent church which
now covers his remains. To all those who contributed,
either by the work of their hands or by their wealth,
indulgences were granted. Almost all the princes of
Christendom sent their offerings ; and the Germans
were particularly distinguished by their liberality. The
city of Assisi granted the quarries of marble ; the in-
habitants of all the neighboring towns sent their artists
to decorate the temple within and without. The body
of St. Prancis was transported thither in the month of


May, 1230; and, contrary to the usual custom with
regard to the remains of the Roman Catholic saints, it
has ever since reposed there entire and undisturbed.

"Were all other evidence wanting, we might form
some idea of the passionate enthusiasm inspired by the
character of St. Francis, and the popularity and influ-
ence of his Order, from the incalculable number of the
effigies which exist of him. They are to be found of
every kind, from the grandest creations of human genius
down to a halfpenny print, and are only rivalled in pro-
fusion and variety by those of the Madonna herself.
In this case, as in some others, I have found it neces-
sary to class the subjects, noticing only the leading
points in the artistic treatment, and the most remark-
able examples under each head, so as to assist the
reader to discriminate the merit, as well as to compre-
hend the significance, of the representation.

But even a classification is here difficult. I shall be-
gin with those subjects which must be considered as
strictly devotional. They are of two kinds : —

I. The figures which represent St. Francis standing,
either alone or in a Sacra Conversazione ; or enthroned,
as the Padre Serafico, the patron saint and founder of
his Seraphic Order.

II. Those which represent him in prayer or medita-
tion as the devout solitary, the pattern of ascetics and

The earliest known representation of St. Francis has
almost the value and authenticity of a portrait. It was
painted by Giunta Pisano a few years after the death
of the saint, and under the directions of those who had
known him during his life : it is a small full-length, in
the sacristy of his church at Assisi ; which, when I was
there, hung high over a door with a curtain drawn lie-
fore it, rather, as it seemed, to preserve than to conceal
it. He is standing, — a long meagre figure, — long out


of all proportion, — wearing the gray habit and the
cord ; holding a cross io his right hand, and in the left
the Gospel : the face is small ; the forehead broad ; the
features delicate and regular ; the beard black, thin,
and short ; the expression mild and melancholy. An-
other very ancient figure, with the hood drawn over the
head, and in the hand a scroll, on which is written Pax
hide, exists at Subiaco, and is supposed to have existed
there since the time of Gregory IX. (the same Cardinal
Ugolini who was the friend of St. Francis, and " Pro-
tector " of the Order). A third, by Margaritone di
Arezzo, also with the hood drawn over the head, the
Gospel in one hand, the other raised in benediction, is
still preserved in the church of Sargiano near Arezzo.
The character of head in these effigies is nearly the
same, and is, or ought to be, the authority for succeed-
ing painters ; and the best have not widely departed
from this peculiar type, — no doubt the true one. But
it has either been set aside, altogether, or most grossly
caricatured, by later painters, and more particularly by
the German and Spanish schools. I have seen heads
of St. Francis, mere coarse versions of the burly sensual
friars we meet begging in the streets of Italy or Spain ;
and reminding us rather of Friar Tuck in Ivanhoe, or
the disguised bandit in Gil Bias, than of the fervent
ascetic, — the tender-hearted and poetical enthusiast.

But even where the true character of head is neg-
lected or degraded, we distinguish St. Francis from all
other saints wearing the same habit, by the stigmata
(or wounds of Christ) in his hands and feet ; and he is
often in the act of opening his tunic and displaying the
wound in his side : these are proper to him, and, to-
gether with the crucifix and the skull, common to other
saints, are the almost unfailing attributes in the count-
less effigies which exist of him. The lamb and the
lily, as symbols of meekness and purity, are also given
to him.

When St. Francis is grouped with other saints, or
stands near the throne of the Madonna or at the foot


of the cross, he has generally a crucifix in his hand,
more seldom the lily, and in the early pictures he is
often distinguished only by the habit and physiog-
nomy. When St. Francis and St. Dominick stand
together, the crucifix is given to the former, the lily to
the latter.

I have seen some devotional figures of St. Francis
which deviate from the usual version ; and shall men-
tion one or two, which, though expressive, are excep-
tional : —

1. In a picture by Sassetta (Eng. in Rossini's "Sto-
ria della Pittura," pi. 50), he is standing within a glory
of seraphim, his hands extended in the form of a cross :
over his head are three angels with the symbols of pov-
erty, chastity, and obedience : under his feet the worldly
vices ; as pride, gluttony, heresy, the latter being dis-
tinguished by the printing-press, — a curious and, for
the time, significant attribute.

2. He stands holding a flaming seraph in his hand,
to denote his title of the Seraphic, as in a picture by

Online LibraryMrs. (Anna) JamesonLegends of the monastic orders, as represented in the fine arts. Forming the second series of Sacred and legendary art → online text (page 24 of 41)