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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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Sano di Pietro of Siena. (Acad. Siena.) I observe
there is often something fanciful and peculiar in the at-
tributes chosen by the Siena school.

3. He stands on a throne, delivering the Franciscan
cords to Religion, who distributes them to various per-
sons, popes, princes, &c. This picture was painted for
the Franciscans of Bologna. (Agostino Caracci, Bo-
logna Gal.)

4. He stands between St. Clara and St. Elizabeth,
who here represent piety and charity, as in a small
Spanish picture. (Louvre, Sp. Gal.)

Very different are those pictures which represent St.
Francis as the devout penitent ; the example at once,
and the consoler, of the broken and contrite spirit. He
is usually kneeling in a gloomy solitude, or in his cell,
barefoot, his gray or brown tunic ragged or patched ;
and either with hands clasped, and head bowed down
over a crucifix, the symbol of redemption ; or over a
19



290 LEGENDS OF THE MONASTIC ORDERS.

skull, the emblem of mortality ; or with arms outspread,
and eyes raised to heaven, where there is usually a
vision of angels, or the Virgin, or the Trinity. Some
of these ascetic or ecstatic figures are wonderful for ex-
pression ; and none have excelled Cigoli in Italy, and
Zurbaran in Spain, in the representation of the hollow-
eyed, wan, meagre, yet ardent and fervent, recluse.

I cannot remember any of these penitential figures
by the very ancient painters ; but in the late Bologna
and Florentine schools, and more especially in Spanish
art, they abound.

A second class of subjects, which are not strictly de-
votional, nor yet historical, I will call mystical. They
represent some vision or incident of his life, not as a
fact, but as conveying a significance more than meets
the eye, and proper for religious edification.

1. " St. Francis receiving the Stigmata" is the most
important and striking of these mystical subjects, and
the one most commonly met with. It is the standing
miracle of his Order, always introduced into a series of
pictures from his life, and constantly met with as a
separate subject. An agreeable one it is not ; and,
without presuming to impugn the faith or the good
taste of those who regard it with reverence as a visible
manifestation of the divine nature in Christ, I will con-
fess that, in this representation, (so frequent, not only
in churches, but in galleries and collections, as to have
become absolutely commonplace,) the union of the
grossly physical and the awfully spiritual is, fo me,
painful and repulsive. Of course, when it is a separate
subject, it may be taken in a completely mystic sense,
and as a vision rather than an event. It has been varied
in a thousand ways, but can never be mistaken. In a
rocky wilderness, St. Francis kneels, generally with up-
lifted looks and hands outspread in devout ecstusv.
Above him hovers the mystic seraph, sometimes far
distant, diminutive, almost lost in a flood of glory ;
sometimes quite near, large, life-like, dreadfully " pal-



ST. FRANCIS OF ASSIST. 291

pable to feeling as to sight." Sometimes the rays pass-
ing from the hands and feet are like threads of light :
sometimes, with better taste, they are seen only in their
effect. When a friar is seen in the background, it is
his friend and disciple Leo, who is recorded to have
been present.

The earliest example is the fresco, by Giotto, in the
upper church at Assisi ; it is treated with great simpli-
city, merely as an incident. There is a similar com-
position in the Louvre.

The finest example I have ever seen is by Agostino
Caracci (Vienna Gal.), — a picture often copied and
engraved, but no copy or engraving has ever rendered
the expression of the head, which, as I well remem-
ber, made me start back. The mystic seraph is just
discerned far above, and rather behind, the saint : he
seems to feel, to. await its approach, with ecstatic aspira-
tion.

The picture by Cigoli (Fl. Acad.) is also a master-
piece of expression, but conceived in a different spirit.
St. Francis, prostrate, seems fainting under the divine
anguish. It is related that, while Cigoli was at work
on this picture, a poor pilgrim, worn out with fatigue
and hunger, begged an alms ; the painter, struck with
his appearance, desired him to come into his study and
wait while he sketched him ; but before the sketch was
completed the poor wretch swooned from exhaustion :
Cigoli seized the moment, and transferred to his canvas
the wasted features almost fixed in the languor of death.
I am not sure that the result is quite satisfactory ; for
the swoon is too painfully natural ; it ought to be a
trance rather than a swoon.

2. A much more agreeable subject is that styled
"the Vision of St. Francis." The Virgin mother,
descending in a glory of light and attended by angels,
places in his arms her divine Son. This is not an early
subject, but once introduced, it soon became a favorite
one both with the painters and the people. The con-
trast afforded was precisely of that kind which the later



1<)2.



LEGENDS OF THE MONASTIC ORDERS.



artists delighted in ; equally violent in the forms and
the sentiment. On one side kneels the visionary, with
features wan and worn, and fatigued with emotion, with
tattered raiment and all the outward signs of sordid
misery : on the other we behold the Virgin, loveliest
and most benign of female forms, bending from her
heavenly throne ; and the infant Saviour smiling as if
fresh from Paradise. The subject admits of great
variety without departing from the leading idea, for
sometimes St. Francis holds the divine Child in his
arms with an air of reverential tenderness, while the
Virgin looks down upon both with maternal benignity;
and sometimes the Child, seated in her lap, extends his
hand to the prostrate saint, who with half-closed eyes,
as if fainting with excess of bliss, just touches that
hand with reverential lips. A choir of angels generally
completes the mystic group ; and the locality varies
with the taste of the painter, being sometimes a land-
scape, sometimes the interior of the Porzioncula, where,
according to the legend, the vision occurred, and in
memory of which almost every Franciscan church in
Spain has its Porzioncula or chapel dedicated to the
Vision of St. Francis. In this subject it is necessary
to distinguish "St. Francis from other saints who were
favored with a similar vision ; and more especially
from St. Antony of Padua, who wears the same habit.
In general, St. Francis may be recognized by the stig-
mata ; he is rather aged, with more or less beard ;
while St. Antony is, or ought to be, young, beardless,
of a beautiful countenance, with a lily beside him.
Where the infant Christ stands beside the saint or on
his book it is probably St. Antony. Where the saint
is prostrate and almost in a trance before the Virgin
and Child, it is probably St. Francis.

It is a mistake, and a gross departure from the proper
religious feeling, to represent St. Francis caressing the
infant Saviour as a father would caress his child ; yet
this is what we find in many of the later pictures, in
which, but for the habit, he might be mistaken for St.
Joseph.



ST. FRANCIS OF ASSIST. 293

There is a very daring and original version of this
vision of St. Francis in a picture by Murillo. Here it
is no longer the blessed Infant leaning from his mother's
bosom, but the crucified Saviour who bends from his
cross of agony ; and while St. Francis, with outstretched
arms, and trampling a globe under his feet, symbol of
the world and its vanities, looks up with the most pas-
sionate expression of adoration and gratitude, the benign
Vision gently inclines towards him, and lays one hand
on his shoulder, while the other remains attached to the
cross ; two choral angels hover above. This may pos-
sibly be intended to represent the vision in San Dami-
ano. (Museum, Seville.)

3. " St. Francis shivering in his cell in the depth of
winter, a demon whispers to him suggestions of ease
and luxury ; he repels the temptation by going out and
rolling himself in the snow on a heap of thorns ; from
the thorns sprinkled with his blood spring roses of
Paradise, which he offers up to Christ and the Ma-
donna." This altogether poetical and mystical subject
refers to the famous vision in the Porzioncula. There
is an example in the Louvre (Xo. 532, New Catalogue),
wherein St. Joseph and St. Dominick stand by as
spectators. There is another by Murillo (Madrid Gal.),
in which a flight of cherubim shower the roses on the
saint.

4. " St. Francis languishing in sickness, an angel
descends from heaven to solace him with music " :
styled also " The Ecstasy of St. Francis." This is a
beautiful subject often gracefully treated, but never, at
least as far as I know, in a truly poetical and religious
spirit. In general St. Francis is in his cavern, leaning
back with eyes half closed, or sustained by an angel,
while another angel sounds the viol above. Or it is a
choir of angels, singing in a glory ; but this is a less
orthodox conception. A singular version of this sub-
ject represents St. Francis almost fainting with ecstasy ;
the angelic visitant, hovering above, touches his viol
and " makes celestial music " : meanwhile St. Bernard,



2 9 4



LEGENDS OF THE MONASTIC ORDERS.



seated near with his ample white robes and his book,
seems to have paused in his studies to listen. (Louvre,
No. 1042.)

5. " St. Francis espouses Poverty, Chastity, and Obe-
dience." Giotto was the first who treated this subject ;
whether he derived the original idea from a celebrated
passage in Dante's Paradiso, or Dante from him, has
been disputed : both the poet and the painter allegorized
the old Franciscan legend as given by St. Bonaventura
long before their time ; and the inventor of the apologue
was certainly Francis himself. " Journeying to Siena,
in the broad plain between Campiglia and San Quirico,
St. Francis was encountered by three maidens, in poor
raiment, and exactly resembling each other in age and
appearanee, who saluted him with the words, < Wel-
come, Lady Poverty/ and suddenly disappeared. The
brethren not irrationally concluded that this apparition
imported some mystery pertaining to St. Francis, and
that by the three poor maidens were signified Chastity,
Obedience, and Poverty, the beauty and sum of evan-
gelical perfection : all of which shone with equal and
consummate lustre in the man of God, though he made
his chief glory the privilege of poverty."

This legend is very literally rendered in a small
picture in the possession of Count Demidoff. Below,
St. Francis meets the three virgins in the plain ; and
above, they are seen floating away, distinguished by
their attributes.

The treatment of this subject in the lower church of
Assist is altogether different. The whole allegory is
elaborately worked out, and it has been supposed with
reason that Giotto was indebted to his friend Dante for
many particulars in the conception. The vault of the
choir is divided into four compartments. In the first
we have the allegory of " the Fortress of Chastity," to
which St. Francis appears ascending , while through a
window appears Chastity herself, as a young maiden,
praying ; two angels floating in the air present to her
the palm and the volume of the Holy Scriptures.



ST. FRANCIS OF ASSIST. 295

The second compartment represents Obedience, who
is figured as an angel, robed in black, placing the finger
of the left hand on his mouth, while with the right he
passes the yoke over the head of a Franciscan friar
kneeling at his feet. On one hand is Prudence, on
the left Humility. Above this group, and attended by
kneeling angels, stands St. Francis in his habit : two
hands' appear as coming out of heaven, holding ap-
parently the knotted cord of the Franciscans.

The third compartment, " the Espousals of St. Fran-
cis with the Lady Poverty," was certainly suggested by
a passage in Dante's Paradiso, or suggested that pas-
sage. The scene is a rocky wilderness : Poverty, —

" The Dame to whom none openeth pleasure's gate
More than to death," —

stands in the midst, emaciated, barefoot, in a tattered
robe, her feet among thorns, which a youth is thrusting
against her with a staff, and a dog barks at her ; she is
attended by Hope and Charity as bridesmaids, herself
being thus substituted for Faith. St. Francis places
the ring upon her finger, while our Saviour, standing
between them, at once gives away the bride and bestows
the nuptial benediction. For the corresponding passage
in Dante I may refer to the Divina Commedia. (Para-
diso, c. xi.) Kugler says, " A tradition ascribes these
paintings collectively to Dante, who was an intimate
friend of the artist, and even recalls him from the other
world to reveal them in a dream to the painter." But
as Dante was apparently alive, and in communication
with Giotto, at the time these frescos were painted, he
needed not to come " from the other world " to reveal
his suggestions.

The fourth compartment of the vault remains to be
described. It exhibits the glorification or apotheosis
of the saint. He is seated on a throne, wearing the
rich embroidered robe of a deacon (from his great hu-
mility he had refused any higher ecclesiastical honor) :
he holds in one hand the cross, in the other the written



296 LEGENDS OF THE MONASTIC ORDERS.

rule of his Order. On each side are choirs of angels,
who hymn his praise ; others in front, bearing lilies in
their hands, have a truly angelic and ethereal grace.

I shall now proceed to the historical representations
taken from the life and miracles of St. Francis.

The history of this saint, in a series of subjects, may
be found very commonly in the churches and convents
belonging to his Order.*

The earliest (about 1308), the most complete, and
the most remarkable, is that which still exists, but in a
most ruined condition, in the upper church of Assisi, in
twenty-eight compartments.

The series by Ghirlandajo, in the Trinita at Florence,
which is extremely fine and dramatic, was painted for
Francesco Sassetti (about 1445), in the chapel of his
patron saint.

A third series I must mention, — the exquisite sculp-
ture round the pulpit in the church of Santa Croce,
executed by Benedetto da Maiano (about 1450) in the
style of Ghiberti's Gates of the Baptistry, at Florence;
and, as it seemed to me, when I had the opportunity
of comparing them on the spot, hardly less beautiful,
expressive, and elaborate. These are the most interest-
ing examples I have seen.

We will now pass in review the whole of the subjects
contained in the upper church of Assisi, comprising all
the incidents I have found represented as a series in
other places, and many which are not to be met with
elsewhere, or which exist only as separate subjects :
assembled here, they form the pictured chronicle of his
life. The brotherhood of St. Francis, though vowed to
poverty, had been enormously enriched by the offerings
of the charitable and devout. Within fifty years after
the death of their patriarch, one of the grandest churches
in Italy had risen over his remains, and their hospitals

* According to Vasari, Cimabue, when called to Assisi about
1265, painted in the lower church the life of St. Francis. This
would, of course, be the earliest on record : it has utterly perished.



ST. FRANCIS OF ASSIST. 297

and missions had extended to every part of the then
known world. In the next century, these munificent
mendicants seemed to have thought that they could not
better employ their surplus wealth than by doing honor
to that " Glorioso poverel di Dio " whose name they bore.
As on a former occasion they had summoned Cimabue,
they now called to their aid Giotto, the greatest painter
of the time. Whether Giotto painted the whole series
of subjects round the nave of the upper church has been
doubted, and with reason. That he painted a great
part of them seems to be pretty well ascertained : but
I will not now go into this question, which is one of
pure antiquarian criticism. Our attention at present
must be fixed upon the subjects themselves, as illustrat-
ing the actions and miracles of the great patriarch. A
reference to the previous sketch of his life will suffi-
ciently interpret most of these, and to the others I will
add some notes of explanation.

I have marked with an asterisk those which have
been engraved in Ottley's " Specimens of the early
Florentine School."

1. When St. Francis was still in his father's house,
and in bondage to the world, a half-witted simpleton,
meeting him in the market-place of Assisi, took off* his
own garment, and spread it on the ground for him to
walk over, prophesying that he was worthy of all honor,
as one destined to greatness, and to the veneration of
the faithful throughout the universe.*

2. St. Francis gives his cloak to the poor officer.
The scene is represented in the valley which lies below

* " Here," says Lord Lindsay, " we find the Oriental veneration
for fatuity on the very threshold of the story." His description of
these frescos in the Sketches of Christian Aft is admirably writ-
ten, and the most accurate and detailed I have met with. I have
not only borrowed largely from him, but in many places have
given his words, — abbreviating where I found it impossible to be
either more exact or more elegant, and adding here and therefrom
my own notes made on the spot.



298 LEGENDS OF THE MONASTIC ORDERS.

Assisi, and St. Francis is on horseback. (In any other
locality this might be mistaken for St. Martin.)

3. The dream of St. Francis, already related. Here
our Saviour stands beside the bed, pointing to the heaps
of armor prepared for the warriors of Christ.

4. St. Francis, kneeling before the crucifix in the
church of St. Damiano, receives the miraculous com-
munication.

5. St. Francis and his father, Pietro Bernardone, re-
nounce each other in the Piazza of Assisi. Francis
throws off his garments, and receives from the bishop
a cloak wherewith to cover him.

6. The vision of Pope Innocent HI. " This is a
very beautiful fresco : the head of St. Francis looking
up to heaven, as if for aid, while he sustains the falling
Church, is extremely expressive ; and so is that of one
of the attendants at the pope's bedside, who has dropped
his head on his arm, as overcome with sleep."

7. Pope Honorius III. confirms the rule of the Fran*
ciscan Order.

8. St. Francis in the chariot of fire. On a certain
night he had gone apart from his brethren to pray ; but
at midnight, when some were awake and others sleep-
ing, a fiery chariot was seen to enter by the door of the

.house, and drive thrice round the court. A globe,
bright and dazzling as the sun at noonday, rested upon
it, which they knew to be the spirit of St. Francis, pres-
ent with them, but parted from his body. •

This was one of the subjects painted by Murillo for
the Capuchins at Seville, and seems to have much per-
plexed commentators.

9. The seats prepared in heaven for St. Francis and
his Order. A large throne, and two small ones on each
side of it, appear above. A monk kneels on one side ;
an angel, floating in the air, points to St. Francis pros-
trate before an altar.

10. St. Francis exorcising Arezzo. The city of
Arezzo was then distracted by factions ; and the saint,
on approaching, beheld a company of demons dancing



ST. FRANCIS OF ASSIST.



299



in the air above the walls, these being the evil spirits
who stirred up men's minds to strife. Thereupon he
sent his companion Silvester to command them in his
name to depart. Silvester obeyed, crying with a loud
voice, " In the name of the omnipotent God, and by
command of his servant Francis, go out hence, every
one of you ! " And immediately the demons dispersed,
and the city returned to peace and propriety. In the
fresco, St. Francis kneels in prayer, while Silvester
stands before the city in a noble attitude of command.

11. St. Francis before the Soldan : this legend has
been already related. Of this subject, the fresco by
Ghirlandajo is particularly fine ; and the bas-relief by
Benedetto da Maiano, most beautiful.

12. St. Francis lifted from the earth in an ecstasy of
devotion.

13. St. Francis exhibits to his congregation a tableau
or theatrical representation of the nativity of our Sav-
iour.

This is curious, as being the earliest instance of those
exhibitions still so common in Italy about Christmas
time, and for which the Franciscan communities are
still pre-eminent.

14. St. Francis and his companions, in journeying
over a desert mountain in the heat of summer, are ex-
hausted by fatigue and thirst. The saint, through his
prayers, causes the living stream to flow from the rock.

This fresco is remarkable in the history of art as
containing the earliest successful attempt to express an
action taken from common life. It is that of the thirsty
man, bending over the fountain to drink ; known as
VAssetato (the thirsty man), and deservedly praised by
Vasari and by Lanzi. It is engraved in D'Agincourt.

15. St. Francis preaching to the birds. " Drawing
nigh to Bevagno, he came to a certain place where
birds of different kinds were gathered together ; whom
seeing, the man of God ran hastily to the spot, and,
saluting them as if they had been his fellows in reason
(while they all turned and bent their heads in attentive



3 oo LEGENDS OF THE MONASTIC ORDERS.

expectation), he admonished them, saying, 'Brother
birds, greatly are ye bound to praise the Creator, who
clotheth you with feathers, and giveth you wings to fly
with, and a purer air to breathe, and who careth for
you, who have so little care for yourselves.' Whilst
he thus spake, the little birds, marvellously commoved,
began to spread their wings, stretch forth their necks,
and open their beaks, attentively gazing upon him ;
and he, glowing in the spirit, passed through the midst
of them, and even touched them with his robe ; yet not
one stirred from his place until the man of God gave
them leave ; when, with his blessing, and at the sign
of the cross, they all flew away. These things saw his
companions, who waited for him on the road ; to whom
returning, the simple and pure-minded man began
greatly to blame himself for having never hitherto
preached to the birds."

And here we must pause for a moment. The last
subject will probably excite a smile, but that smile
ought to be a serious smile, — not a sneer ; and I can-
not pass it over without remark.

Among the legends of St. Francis, some of the most
interesting are those which place him in relation with
the lower animals. He looked upon all beings as ex-
isting by, and through, God ; and as having a portion
of that divine principle by which he himself existed.
He was accustomed to call all living things his brothers
and sisters. In the enthusiasm of his charity he inter-
preted literally the text, " Go ye into all the world, and
preach the Gospel to every creature." He appears to
have thought that all sentient beings had a share in the
divine mission of Christ ; and since a part of that divine
mission was to enlarge the sphere of our human sym-
pathies, till they embrace all our fellow-creatures, it
should seem that the more the tender spirit of Chris-
tianity is understood and diffused, the more will the
lower creation be elevated through our own more ele-
vated intelligence and refined sympathies. Dr. Arnold



ST. FRANCIS OF ASSIST. 301

says, in a striking passage of one of his letters, that
" the destinies of the brute creation appeared to him a
mystery which he could not approach without awe."
St. Francis, in his gentle and tender enthusiasm, solved
that mystery — at least to himself — by admitting ani-
mals within the pale of Christian sympathy. I shall
give a few of these legends here, as the best commen-
tary on the subjects above described. It is recorded
that when he walked in the fields the sheep and the
lambs thronged around him, hares and rabbits nestled
in his bosom ; but of all living creatures he seems to
have loved especially birds of every kind, as being the
most unearthly in their nature : and among birds he
loved best the dove. " One day he met, in his road,
a young man on his way to Siena to sell some doves,
which he had caught in a snare ; and Francis said to
him, < good young man ! these are the birds to
whom the Scripture compares those who are pure and
faithful before God : do not kill them, I beseech thee,
but give them rather to me ' ; and when they were
given to him, he put them in his bosom and carried



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 25 of 41)