In G.K. Chesterton’s biography of Saint Francis of Assisi, he gives an image of Francis emerging from his cave, walking on his hands to visualise the way he saw the world upside down and dependent on God. The same image later appears in the song ‘The Cave’ by Mumford and Sons in order to make precisely the same point. In one of my first training sessions as a newly ordained curate, the then Bishop of Barking, after repeated attempts, performed a handstand in order to visualise the upside-down nature of the revolution initiated by Jesus and continued by Francis. These are just some of the many ways and varied contexts in which imagery related to Francis continues to be shared and resonate in our own day and time.
Francis is probably the most represented saint in the history of art.
The National Gallery’s Saint Francis of Assisi exhibition explores how Saint Francis captured the imagination of artists, how his image has evolved over centuries, and how his universal appeal has transcended time, continents, and differing religious traditions. Through more than 40 works of art which span more than seven centuries and range from medieval painted panels and relic-like objects to manuscripts and a Marvel comic, the exhibition illustrates the claim that, apart from the saints of the New Testament, Francis is probably the most represented saint in the history of art. That reality came about because the growth of the Franciscan movement went hand in hand with the rapid spread of imagery by some of the greatest artists. Art historians have estimated that as many as 20,000 images of Francis might have been made just in the century after his death.
Francis embraced Christ, his message, and way of life – as is literally depicted for us in Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s ‘Saint Francis embracing the Crucified Christ’ – with a depth of insight and commitment that was unsurpassed in his own time and has remained so ever since. That is part of his continuing inspiration and attraction to so many, alongside the breadth of his radicalism, which embraces environmental concerns, gender equality, issues of poverty and wealth, and interfaith engagement.
At the heart of this exhibition are Sassetta’s panels for the San Sepolcro Altarpiece, which show one of the most celebrated ‘visual biographies’ of the saint. These are displayed in a round room from which, like the spokes of a wheel, viewers enter the other rooms of the exhibition, each documenting and exploring visually a key aspect of Francis’ life and ministry.
A flowering of artistic and architectural production in the period of artistic change leading up to the Renaissance saw Francis given great prominence in the friaries and churches built by the growing Franciscan movement. Then, in the Counter-Reformation, Francis became one of the most frequently depicted saints. Sandro Botticelli’s ‘Saint Francis of Assisi with Angels’ sees Francis meditating on the cross, El Greco’s ‘Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata’ shares his intense inner experience, which then has a physical manifestation, Caravaggio’s early masterpiece ‘Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy’ shows Francis in emotional exhaustion following his vision, and Francisco de Zurbarán’s ‘Saint Francis in Meditation’ shows the saint in deep reflection in his patched habit; each reveals, through different styles and foci at different times in this broad period, the depth of Francis’ identification with Christ.
What is, perhaps, more fascinating still, as it is less expected, are the points of identification modern and contemporary artists have found with Francis. Here, these range from Antony Gormley’s ‘Untitled (for Francis)’, in which the artist’s body-cast while standing with arms outstretched to greet Brother Sun is pierced where the stigmata were received, to Richard Long’s ‘A Walk for Saint Francis’, which records a series of revelatory experiences and sights from a walk on above Assisi on Mount Subasio through words simply arranged in a circular pattern. Gormley’s piece draws on memories of his father, who taught him about the saint, emphasising ‘that the meek will inherit the Earth and that in order to live you have to eschew material things.’
José Clemente Orozco’s engraving ‘The Franciscan’ shows us a Franciscan friar experiencing complete identification with an indigenous Indian, mirroring Francis’ own identification with those who were the poorest and most excluded in his time. Here, the friar’s face becomes one with the Indian he embraces, and their bodies form a complete circle. As a Mexican Muralist, Orozco is anticipating the Liberation Theology, which was to later emerge from Latin America and for which Francis is an inspiration. Coming from a context shaped by Liberation Theology, Pope Francis has chosen to identify himself with Francis of Assisi because he has ‘a special place in his heart and his ministry for the poor, for the disenfranchised, for those living on the fringes and facing injustice.’ Pope Francis has expressed his own enthusiasm for this exhibition, which shows that the ‘joyful witness to the beauty of creation, radical solidarity with the poor and zeal from the imitation of Christ’ of this ‘beloved minstrel of God’ has ‘inspired artists and poets in every age’.
Another to be so inspired was the Australian artist Arthur Boyd who, while living in London, was moved to visit Assisi by his reading of a biography of Francis from art historian T.S.R. Boase, a future Chair of the Board of Trustees for the National Gallery. The result was a series of lithographs which were used to illustrate later editions of Boase’s book. Boyd chose overlooked and under-considered aspects of Francis’s story giving these ‘an earthy, brutal quality’ that Boase thought was ‘nearer the facts’ than were earlier images. Prior to the lithographs, Boyd had worked on pastels inspired by Francis, and later, he created large tapestries illustrating the life of the saint. Many of these are currently being exhibited at The David Roche Foundation in Adelaide in an exhibition focussing on Boyd’s works inspired by Francis. Another artist working in a similar style to Boyd, and that of other visionary artists, including Georges Rouault and Cecil Collins, is Greg Tricker, who has also created a series of works on the life of Francis. Tricker’s work can currently be viewed in ‘Sacred Meetings – paintings by Greg Tricker’ at the Marylebone Theatre. Deeply rooted in the mystical tradition of art, Tricker portrays the human suffering, exultation, compassion and joy of the life of St Francis.
The show ends with a selection of Andrea Büttner’s woodcuts from the series entitled ‘Beggars’, while her woodcut ‘Vogelpredigt (Sermon to the Birds)’ also appears earlier in the exhibition. Büttner is fascinated by the life of religious communities and, in her work, explores the crossover between religion and art. During an Italian residency made possible by winning the Max Mara Art Prize for Women in collaboration with the Whitechapel Gallery, she spent time with monastic groups, Giotto’s frescoes and Arte Povera works from the Collezione Maramotti. The resulting exhibition entitled ‘The Poverty of Riches’ engaged with the notion of poverty from both an aesthetic and spiritual perspective which resulted from ‘Büttner’s articulation of a connection between the rejection of wealth by monastic movements and the choice of materials used for the creation of artworks during the Arte Povera movement, seemingly eschewing mass media and the art market’.
With works such as ‘Sacco (Sack)’, Alberto Burri’s paintings made of sackcloth and other assorted materials have been linked to the humble habit of St Francis, also on display here as a relic from the Community of the Friars Minor Conventual of the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence. That link was clearly made when the work was exhibited at the Sacro Convento of San Francesco in Assisi in 1975. Another later Arte Povera artist, Giuseppe Penone, also included here, made similar links between the movement and that of Saint Francis when he said that ‘the need for radicalness and simplification that I felt, especially in my early works, approaches the principles of poverty and rigour practised by Saint Francis’.
Such works demonstrate the truth of Pope Francis’ words addressed to the National Gallery on learning of this exhibition: ‘The message of Saint Francis remains remarkably timely in our own day, marked by a thirst for spiritual wisdom, a more just and fraternal society, and a renewed covenant with the earth, our common home’.
‘Saint Francis of Assisi’, 6 May – 30 July 2023, National Gallery. Visit Here
‘Arthur Boyd: The Life of Saint Francis’, 28 April – 2 September 2023, The David Roche Foundation, Adelaide. Read More
‘Sacred Meetings – paintings by Greg Tricker’, 1 April – 3 June 2023, Marylebone Theatre. Visit Here
The Art Diary – May 2023- Rev Jonathan Evens