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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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them to his convent at Ravacciano, where he made for
them nests, and fed them every day, until they became
so tame as to eat from his hand : and the young man
had also his recompense ; for he became a friar, and
lived a holy life from that day forth." — St. Francis had
also a great tenderness for larks, and often pointed out
to his disciples the lark mounting to " heaven's gate,"
and singing praises to the Creator, as a proper emblem
of Christian aspiration. " A lark brought her brood
of nestlings to his cell, to be fed from his hand : he
saw that the strongest of these nestlings tyrannized over
the others; pecking at them and taking more than his
due share of the food ; whereupon the good saint re-
buked the creature, saying, ' Thou unjust and insati-
able ! thou shalt die miserably, and the greediest ani-
mals shall refuse to eat thy flesh.' And so it happened,
for the creature drowned itself through its impetuosity
in drinking, and when it was thrown to the cats they



3 oa LEGENDS OF THE MONASTIC ORDERS.

would not touch it." — " On his return from Syria, in
passing through the Venetian Lagoon, vast numbers of
birds were singing, and he said to his companion, « Our
sisters, the birds, are praising their Creator ; let us sing
with them,' — and he began the sacred service. But
the warbling of the birds interrupted them, therefore
St. Francis said to them, « Be silent till we also have
praised God/ and they ceased their song, and did not
resume it till he had given them pei-mission." — " On
another occasion, preaching at Alviano, he could not
make himself heard for the chirping of the swallows,
which were at that time building their nests : pausing,
therefore, in his sermon, he said, * My sisters, you have
talked enough : it is time that I should have my turn.
Be silent, and listen to the word of God ! ' and they
were silent immediately." — " On another occasion, as
he was sitting with his disciple Leo, he felt himself
penetrated with joy and consolation by the song of the
nightingale, and he desired his friend Leo to raise his
voice and sing the praises of God in company with the
bird. But Leo excused himself by reason of his bad
voice ; upon which Francis himself began to sing, and
when he stopped, the nightingale took up the strain,
and thus they sang alternately, until the night was far
advanced, and Francis was obliged to stop, for his voice
failed. Then he confessed that the little bird had van-
quished him ; he called it to him, thanked it for its
song, and gave it the remainder of his bread ; and hav-
ing bestowed his blessing upon it, the creature flew
away."

Here we have a version of the antique legend of the
Thessalian Shepherd and the Nightingale : but there
the nightingale is vanquished and dies ; here the lesson
of humility is given to the man. Mark the distinction
between the classic and the Christian sentiment !

" A grasshopper was wont to sit and sing on a fig-
tree near the cell of the man of God, and oftentimes by
her singing she excited him also to sing the praises of
the Creator ; and one day he called her to him, and



ST. FRANCIS OF ASSIST.



3°3



she flew upon his hand, and Francis said to her, ' Sing,
my sister, and praise the Lord thy Creator/ So she
began her song immediately, nor ceased till at the
father's command she flew back to her own place ; and
she remained eight days there, coming and singing at
his behest. At length the man of God said to his
disciples, ' Let us dismiss our sister ! enough, that she
has cheered us with her song, and excited us to the
praise of God these eight days.' So, being permitted,
she immediately flew away, and was seen no mox - e."

When he found worms or insects in his road, he was
careful not to tread upon them ; " he stepped aside and
bid the reptile live." He would even remove them
from the pathway, lest they should be crushed by others.

One day, in passing through a meadow, he saluted
the flocks which were grazing there, and he perceived a
poor little lamb which was feeding all alone in the
midst of a flock of goats ; he was moved with pity, and
he said, " Thus did our mild Saviour stand alone in
the midst of the Jews and the Pharisees." He would
have bought this sheep, but he had nothing in the world
but his tunic ; however, a charitable man passing by,
and seeing his grief, bought the lamb and gave it to
him. When he was at Rome, in 1222, he had with
him a pet lamb, which accompanied him everywhere :
and in pictures of St. Francis a lamb is frequently
introduced, which may either signify his meekness
and purity of mind, or it may represent this very
lamb, " which lay in his bosom, and was to him as a
daughter."

We now return to Giotto's frescos : —

* 16. The death of the young count of Celano. St.
Francis being invited to dine with a devout and char-
itable noble, before sitting down to table, privately
warned him that his end drew near, and exhorted him
to confess his sins, for that God had given him this op-
portunity of making his peace in recompense of his
hospitality towards the poor of Christ. The young
count obeyed, confessed himself, set his house in order,



3°4



LEGENDS OF THE MONASTIC ORDERS.



and then took his place at the entertainment ; but, before
it was over, sank down and expired on the spot.

17. St. Francis preaching before the pope and car-
dinals, all seated in appropriate attitudes, under a mag-
nificent Gothic Loggia.

The fresco and similar subjects are to be referred, I
believe, to the following passage in his life. Francis
hesitated long between the contemplative and the active
religious life. He and his disciples were men quite
unlearned. He wished to persuade others to follow,
like himself, the way of salvation ; but he knew not
how to set about it. He consulted his brethren what
he should do. " ' God,' said he, < has given me the
gift of prayers, but not the gift of words ; yet as the
Son of Man, when he was upon earth, not only re-
" deemed men by his blood, but instructed them by his
words, ought we not to follow his divine example ? *
And in his great humility, he requested not only of his
brethren, but also of Clara and her sisterhood, that they
would pray for him that a sign might be given what he
should do. The answer was to all the same, — ' Go,
preach the Gospel to every creature.' And, when he
preached such eloquence was given to him from above,
that none could resist his words, and the most learned the-
ologians remained silent and astonished in his presence."

A particular sermon, which he preached at Rome
before Honorius III. may also be alluded to.

St. Francis, in the rule given to his brotherhood,
prescribed short sermons, — " because those of our
Saviour were short " ; and as we are not the more
heard above, so neither are we the more listened to
below, for " our much speaking."

* 18. When St. Antony of Padua was preaching at
a general chapter of the Order, held at Aries in 1224,
St. Francis appeared in the midst of them, his arms
extended in the form of a cross.

19. St. Francis receiving the stigmata, as already
described.

20. The death of St. Francis in the midst of his
friars; angels bear his soul into heaven.



ST. FRANCIS OF ASSIST. 305

21. The dying friar. Lying at that time on his
death-bed, he beheld the spirit of St. Francis rising
into heaven, and, springing forward, he cried " Tarry,
father! I come with thee," and fell back dead.

22. St. Francis being laid upon his bier, the people
of Assisi were admitted to see and kiss the stigmata.
One Jerome, sceptical like St. Thomas, would see and
touch before he believed : he is here represented kneel-
ing and touching the side, " the dead brow frowning
with anguish."

* 23. The Lament at San Damiano. The body of
St. Francis being carried to Assisi, the bearers halt
before the porch of the church, and are received by St.
Clara and her nuns : St. Clara leans over, embracing
the body ; another nun kisses his hand.

24. This compartment is in a ruined state.

* 25. The vision of Pope Gregory IX. This pope,
before he consented to canonize St. Francis, had some
doubts of the celestial infliction of the stigmata. St.
Francis appeared to him in a vision, reproved his un-
belief, opened his robe, and, exposing the wound in his
side, filled a vial with the blood which flowed from it,
and gave it to the pope, who, on waking found it in
his hand.

* 26. A certain man who had been mortally wounded
by robbers, and given over by his physician, invoked
St. Francis, who appears, attended by two angels, and
heals him.

* 27. A certain woman of Monte Marino, near Bene-
vento, having died unshriven, her spirit was permitted,
through the intercession of St. Francis, to return and
reanimate the body while she confessed and received
absolution. The woman sits up in bed ; an angel
hovers above, awaiting the final release of the soul,
while a horrible little demon disappointed, flies away.

28. St. Francis the vindicator of innocence. A cer-
tain bishop had been falsely accused of heresy. The
bishop's cathedral is seen on the left, the prison to the
right ; in the midst he is kneeling, a priest behind holds
20



3 o6 LEGENDS OF THE MONASTIC ORDERS.

the crosier of which he has been deprived. The jailer
steps forward with manacles, and St. Francis in his
habit is seen floating above in the sky, and interceding
for his votary.

The series by Ghirlandajo in the Sassetti chapel
(Florence, S. Trinita), consists of six subjects only: —

1. A famous Florentine legend not to be found at
Assisi. A child of the Spini family fell from the win-
dow of the Palazzo Spini, and was killed on the spot.
While they are carrying the child to the grave, the
parents invoke St. Francis, who appears visibly, and
restores him to life.

2. St. Francis renounces the inheritance of his father.

3. He stands before Pope Honorius III., to whom
he presents the roses which sprang from his blood.

4. He receives the stigmata.

5. St. Francis before the Soldan. He offers to walk
through the fire to prove the truth of his mission.

6. Called " the death of St. Francis," but more
properly « the incredulity of Jerome." The saint lies
extended on a bier, surrounded by his brethren; a
bishop, with spectacles on his nose, is reciting the
service for the dead ; a friar, in front (most admirably
painted), kisses the hand of the saint ; conspicuous in
the group behind, Jerome stoops over, and places his
hand on the wounded side. In compartments to the
right and left kneel the votaries, Francesco Sassetti, and
his wife Madonna Nera. This, even in its ruined condi-
tion, is one of the finest and most solemnly dramatic
pictures in the world.

These frescos are engraved in Lasinio's " Early
Florentine Masters."

The series of bas-reliefs by Benedetto da Maiano (Fl.
Santa Croce) consists of five subjects : —

1. St. Francis receives the stigmata. 2. He receives
from Honorius III. the confirmation of his Order. 3.



ST. FRANCIS OF ASS IS I. 3 o 7

Pie appears before the Soldan. 4. The incredulity of
Jerome. 5. The martyrdom of the five Franciscan
missionaries, as already related.

This series was engraved by the younger Lasinio,
and published in 1823.

In all these instances the subjects form what may be
properly termed an historical series. There is, however,
an example of a pictured life of St. Francis which must
be taken altogether in a mystical sense. I have spoken
of the veneration entertained for him by his followers.
They very early compared his actions and character
with those of the Redeemer; and, with a daring fanati-
cism, — for which I can hardly find a name, — seemed
almost to consider their Seraphic patriarch less as an
imitator and follower of Christ than as a being endued
himself with a divine nature ; in short — for it amounted
to that — as a reappearance, a sort of avatar of the
Spirit of Christ again visiting this earth ; or as the
Second Angel of the Revelation, to whom it was given
to set a seal on the elect. A memorial of this extrava-
gant enthusiasm still exists in a set of twenty-six small
pictures, painted by Giotto for the friars of the Santa
Croce at Florence. (Fl. Acad, and Berlin Gal.) It
was the custom in the rich convents to have the presses
and chests which contained the sacred vestments and
utensils ornamented with carvings or pictures of relig-
ious subjects. These twenty-six pictures adorned the
doors of the presses in the sacristy of the church of
Santa Croce, and pre*nt the parallel (already received
and accredited, not invented by the painter) between the
life of our Saviour and that of St. Francis. The sub-
jects have an ideal and mystical, rather than a literal,
reference to each other. For some excellent remarks*
on this curious series, I must refer to the notes ap-
pended by Sir Charles Eastlake to Kugler's Handbook.

It remains to notice a few separate subjects which
relate to St. Francis, and are not usually met with.



3 o8 LEGENDS OF THE MONASTIC ORDERS.

Nicholas V. (in 1449) descends into the tomb of St.
Francis at Assisi, which had never been opened since
his death. He finds the body entire and standing up-
right ; kneeling, he lifts the robe to examine the traces
of the stigmata; attendants and monks with torches
stand around : as in a picture by Lahire, in the Cara-
vaggio style, and most striking for effect. — Another
picture of the same scene, a most extraordinary and
crowded composition, is engraved in the " Dusseldorf
Gallery."*

A certain poor man was cast into prison by an inex-
orable creditor : he besought mercy in the name of the
holy St. Francis ; but it was refused ; but St. Francis
himself appeared, broke his fetters, opened the doors of
his dungeon, and set him free. There is a picture of
this subject by Giovanni Santi, the father of Raphael.
(At Cagli. Capella Tiranni.) St. Peter, the patron
saint of prisoners, stands near with his keys ; an angel,
attending on St. Francis, is supposed to be the portrait
of Raphael when a boy. I saw a drawing from this
fresco at Alton Towers, differing in some respects from
the minute description given by Passavant.

I am far from supposing that we have exhausted the
variety of illustration connected with the pictured life
of St. Francis, but I must stop ; I must not be tempted
beyond the limits of my subject ; I must forbear to give
words to all the reflections, all the comparisons between
the past and the present, which have arisen in my own
mind while writing the foregoing*pages, and which will,
I trust, suggest themselves to the thoughtful reader.
I have heard it said that the representations of this
most popular of all tbe monastic saints, and of the wild
and often revolting legends which relate to him, weary
and disgust by their endless repetition. They must do

* This is a mere legend. The tomb in the hollow rock was
opened Dec. 26, 1818, by order of Pius "VII., when the skeleton
was found recumbent and entire ; it was left untouched, and the
tomb reverently closed Jan. 1, 1819.



ST. CLARA. 309

so if regarded as mere pictures ; for there are few out
of the vast number which are really good ; and the finer
they are, the more painful ; — too often, at least, it is
so. Their effect depends, however, on the amount of
faith or of wise thoughtfulness, not less than on the taste,
of the observer. I have said enough to show what sad,
what thrilling, what solemn interest lies in the most
beautiful and most ancient of these pictured monu-
ments ; what associations of terror and pity may be ex-
cited by some of the meanest. Many of the subjects
and groups I have slightly touched upon will be better
understood as we proceed to review the companions and
followers of St. Francis, who are supposed to share his
beatitude in heaven, and upon whom art has bestowed
on earth a glory hardly less than his own.



St. Clara.

Lat. Sancta Clara. Ital. Santa Chiara. Fr. Sainte Claire.

August 11, 1253.

" Clara Claris praeclara meritis magnas in coelo claritate gloriae
ac in terra miraculorum sublimium clare claret."

St. Clara, from some inevitable association of ideas,
always comes before us as the very ideal of a " Gray
Sister," "sedate and sweet" ; or of a beautiful saintly
abbess, " sober, steadfast, and demure " ; and her fame
and popularity as a patroness have rendered her musical
and significant name popular from one end of Europe
to the other, but more especially in Spain. Her story
is so eminently picturesque, that we have reason to re-
gret that as a picturesque subject so little use has been
made of it.

Clara d'Assisi was the daughter of Favorino Sciffo,
a noble knight ; her mother's name was Ortolana. She
was the eldest of their children ; and her uncommon
beauty, and the great wealth of her parents, exposed
her to many temptations and many offers of marriage.



3 io LEGENDS OF THE MONASTIC ORDERS.

But she had heard of those who were seeking the crown
of salvation through the thorny paths of mortification
and prayer ; and her heart burnt within her to follow
their example. While yet in the first bloom of maiden-
hood, she had devoted herself in secret to a religious
life ; but her parents daily urged her to marry ; and
after a time, being distracted through the conflict within
her own soul, she repaired to St. Francis and entreated
his counsel. He believing that the way he had chosen
for himself was the true way to salvation, advised her at
once to renounce the world ; and he appointed the fol-
lowing Palm-Sunday as the day on which she should
come to him and make her profession.

On that day, according to the Catholic custom, Clara,
arrayed in her most sumptuous apparel, accompanied
her mother Ortolana, and her sister Agnes, and the rest
of her family, to church ; and when all the others ap-
proached the altar to receive the palm-branch with
which to join the procession, she alone remained kneel-
ing afar off — not lifting her eyes, through a sense of
her own unworthiness ; which when the bishop beheld,
touched by her maidenly humility and bashfulness, he
descended the steps of the altar, and himself placed the
palm-branch in her hand. That same evening, being
still arrayed in her festal garments, she threw a veil
over her head and escaped from the city ; and hurrying
down the steep ascent on foot, she arrived breathless at
the door of the chapel of the Porzioncula, where St.
Francis dwelt with his tHen small brotherhood. When
she craved admittance for " a poor penitent," they met
her with lighted tapers, and conducted her, singing
hymns of praise, to the altar of the Virgin. Then she
put off her splendid attire, and St. Francis with his own
hands cut off her luxuriant golden tresses, and he threw
over her his own penitential habit, and she became his
daughter and disciple. "Dispose of me ! " she said,
kneeling at his feet. " I am yours ; for, having con-
secrated my will to God, it is no longer my own ! "
He desired her to take refuge in the convent of San



ST. CLARA. 311

Paolo, whither her father and her kinsmen pursued her,
and endeavored to force her away ; but she clung to
the altar, calling on God to help aod strengthen her ;
and they were compelled to desist. Soon afterwards,
her younger sister Agnes, inspired by her example, fled
from her home — joined her in the convent — and
solemnly renounced the world at the age of fourteen :
other ladies of high rank in the city of Assisi, among
whom were three of the noble house of Ubaldini, united
themselves to the two sisters ; and at length their
mother, Ortolana, — perhaps because she could not
endure separation from her children : and from this
time the Order of the " Poor Clares " dates its com-
mencement.

The rule was as austere as that of St. Francis. The
habit was a gown of gray wool girded with knotted
cord ; on the head they wore a white coif, and over it,
when they went abroad, a black veil. They went bare-
foot or sandalled ; their bed was the hard earth ; absti-
nence and silence were strictly ordained, more especially
silence : but voluntary poverty, the grand distinction
of the whole Franciscan Order, was what St. Clara
most insisted on ; and when, on the death of her father,
she inherited great wealth, she distributed the whole of
her patrimony to the hospitals and the poor, reserving
nothing for herself nor for her sisterhood. They were
to exist literally upon charity : when nothing was given
to them, they fasted. Clara herself set an example of
humility by washing the feet of the lay sisters when
they returned from begging, and meekly serving them
at table. The extreme austerity of her life wasted her
health ; but, even when she had lost the use of her
limbs, she sat up in bed and spun flax of marvellous
fineness.

At this time the Emperor Frederic ravaged the
shores of the Adriatic ; and he had in his army a band
of infidel Saracens, to whom he had granted the fortress
of Nocera, since called, from them, Nocera-dei-Mori ;
and they sallied from this place of strength, and plun-



3 i2 LEGENDS OF THE MONASTIC ORDERS.

dered the towns and villages of the valley of Spoleto,
" and made the inhabitants drink to the dregs of the
chalice of wrath and cruelty." One day they advanced
nearly to the gates of Assisi, and attacked the convent
of San Damiano. The nuns, seized with terror and
despair, rushed to the bedside of their "Mother," Clara,
and cowered around her like frightened doves when the
hawk has stooped upon their dove-cot. But Clara,
then suffering from a grievous malady, and long bed-
ridden, immediately arose, full of holy faith ; — took
from the altar the pix of ivory and silver which con-
tained the Host, placed it on the threshold, and, kneel-
ing down in front of her sisterhood, began to sing in a
clear voice, " Thou hasl rebuked the heathen, thou hast
destroyed the wicked, thou hast put out their name for ever
and ever I " whereupon the barbarians, seized with a
sudden panic, threw down their arms and fled.

And the fame of this great and miraculous deliver-
ance was spread far and wide ; so that the people
thronged from all the neighboring cities to obtain the
prayers and intercession of Clara. Pope Innocent IV.
visited her in person, solemnly confirmed the rule of
her Order, and before her death she had the satisfaction
of seeing it received throughout Christendom, while
many princesses and ladies of the noblest houses had
assumed the penitential cord of the Third Order of her
community.

At the age of sixty, after years of acute bodily suf-
fering, but always faithful and fervent in spirit, she ex-
pired in a kind of trance or rapturous vision, believing
herself called by heavenly voices to exchange her
earthly penance for " a crown of rejoicing."

Her sister Agnes, who had been sent to Florence as
Superior of a convent there, came to attend her on her
death-bed, and succeeded her as second Abbess.

After the death of St. Clara, the sisterhood, for
greater safety, removed from San Damiano to San
Giorgio, within the walls of Assisi, and carried with
them her sacred remains. This church, now Santa



ST. CLARA. 3 i 3

Chiara di Assisi, has become the chief church of her
Order.

She was canonized in 1256. She had bequeathed to
her sisterhood, in the most solemn terms, " the inheri-
tance of poverty and humility " ; but within the next
half century the Clares, like the Franciscans, were re-
leased, as a body, from their vow of poverty. Their
houses subsequently became the favorite asylum for
oppressed and sorrowing, parentless, husbandless, home-
less women of all classes.

The eloquent author of a recent Life of St. Francis
styles St. Clara " the disobedient Clara," and indicates
some alarm lest young ladies of our own time should
incline to imitate her disobedience, renounce their
parents, and take to mortification, almsgiving, and
maiden meditation, when they ought to be thinking
rather of balls and matrimony.

Now the idea that Heaven is best propitiated by the
renunciation of all earthly duties and affections, is not
peculiar to the period in which Clara lived ; nor should
she be stigmatized as disobedient because she chose
what she considered the better part, — the higher obedi-
ence. The mistake lies in supposing that the affections
and duties of this world can ever be safely trampled
under our feet, or accounted as snares, rather than as
means through which God leads us to himself. Yet it
is a mistake too common to be justly made a reproach
against this self-denying enthusiastic woman of the



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 26 of 41)