Sunday, October 30, 2011

Giuseppe Arcimboldo – A Halloween Offering

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Winter,
Italian, 1564
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

In the years when I was between ages 4 and 6 my mother went through a period of serious illness that required her to make frequent visits to her doctor. While she was with the doctor I was on my own in the waiting room and, while waiting, would peruse the magazines that were available. In those days it was mostly Life, Time and Look, with the occasional Saturday Evening Post (based on my memories of their format). There may have been other magazines too but, since I couldn’t yet read, I can’t be sure of their identity.

One day, in one of the magazines, I remember seeing reproductions of some paintings that both fascinated and repelled me. They still do. These are the notorious “composite portrait” paintings of Giuseppe Arcimboldo.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Zacharias Naming His Son
from Scenes from the Life of St. John the Baptist
Italian, 1545
Milan, San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore
Giuseppe Arcimboldo was the son of the Lombard (north Italian) Renaissance painter, Biagio. He was presumably born sometime in 1526 or 1527, presumably in Milan. In his youth he worked with his father, most notably on designs for stained glass windows in the cathedral of Milan.

He also seems to have worked in collaboration with other artists on various decorative projects in and around Milan during the 1540s and 1550s. 1

Leonardo da Vinci, Grotesque Heads
Italian, c. 1494
Windsor, Royal Collection

In Milan, Arcimboldo could have become familiar with some of the works of Leonardo da Vinci, who had worked in the area at the beginning of the century. Leonardo’s famous Last Supper is in Milan and some of his other work, such as drawings, including his studies of grotesque heads, was also there at the time. Milan was also the home of some of Leonardo’s pupils and assistants, notably Francesco Melzi, Bernardino Luini and Giovanni Ambrogio Figino. 2

The mood of painting in these decades was that of what is known as Mannerism3 The art of the Mannerist period delighted in various kinds of visual extravagances, such as distortions of proportion, complex compositions (with figures often irrelevant to the supposed subject matter being given prominent place), grotesques and visual jokes. It was a sophisticated and deliberately “in” style of art, highly suited for an aristocratic and learned audience, but not well suited for straightforward didactic purposes. One could say, in fact, that in Mannerist art the complexity of the composition and elegance of execution took precedence over content and meaning.

In 1562 Giuseppe moved north of the Alps to offer his services to the King of the Romans (eventually also Holy Roman Emperor), Maximilian II. His move from Milan may have been precipitated by the episcopate of Cardinal (later Saint) Charles Borromeo. Cardinal Borromeo preferred artists who were able to focus their production on a more straightforward and serious presentation of the truths of the faith. In this way he anticipated the aims of what became known as Counter-Reformation art or Tridentine art (named after the reforming Council of Trent, which met in northern Italy from 1545 - 1563). At the imperial court Arcimboldo could hope to obtain work from the kind of sophisticated audience that had supported the Mannerist style in mid-century Italy.
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Archduchess Anna,
Daughter of Emperor Maximilian II
Italian, ca. 1563
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Initially, he painted portraits of the imperial family and court. He also worked as a designer for the kinds of courtly activities that were common in late 16th-century Europe: pageants, tournaments, etc.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Sketch for a Sleigh
Italian, 1570s
Florence, Uffizi Gallery

But, beginning in the mid-1560s he also began the series of composite heads that fascinated me as a child and continue to fascinate me as an adult.

The composite heads are human forms that are composed of flowers, fruits and vegetables or sometimes of other items.

The best known are several series of The Four Seasons, one of which is at the Louvre.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Winter
Italian, ca. 1573
Paris, Musee du Louvre
GiuseppeArcimboldo, Spring
Italian, ca. 1573
Paris, Musee du Louvre

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Summer
Italian, ca. 1573
Paris, Musee du Louvre

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Autumn
Italian, ca. 1573
Paris, Musee du Louvre

In the Louvre Four SeasonsSpring is made up of flowers and spring plants; Summer is composed of grains, fruits and vegetables (among them grapes, melons and eggplant).  Autumn is made from fruits and grains, while Winter shows bare branches, ivy and those stored up sources of vitamin C, lemons.

In Spring teeth are actually lilies of the valley, while peas represent them in Summer.  In Autumn a pear becomes a nose, while in Winter mushrooms become lips.

 He also did a series of heads of the classical four elements: earth, air, fire, water.  Two of the Elements are in the Kunsthistoricsches Museum in Vienna.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Fire
Italian, 1566
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Fire is a head composed of flames, flammable items and items associated with different forms of fire, such as candles, lamps, flint and parts of guns and cannons. Burning coals form the hair.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Water
Italian, 1566
Viena Kunsthistorisiches Museum

Water, who appears, from the pearl earring and necklace, to be a female, is composed of aquatic elements: fish, crustaceans, amphibians, coral, even a tiny seal. 4

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Vertumnus
Italian, ca. 1590
Skokloster (Sweden), Skokloster Castle

The composite heads are sometimes “portraits” of actual individuals. For example, the well-known Vertumnus is a portrait of the Emperor Rudolf II (son of Maximilian II).
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Librarian
Italian, ca. 1566
Skokloster (Sweden), Skokloster Castle

Other portraits are visual jokes, based on the profession of the “sitter”. The painting called The Librarian, made up of books, is presumed to be a portrait of the court historian, Wolfgang Lazius.

And some are both visual jokes and optical illusions, as for instance the painting titled, The Cook. In that painting we see a platter of roasted meats in the process of being uncovered. But, when it is turned upside down, it becomes a face and the platter becomes a hat.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, The Cook
Italian, 1570
Stockholm, National Museum

In his final years Arcimboldo painted a head called The Four Seasons in One Head, which may be a self-portrait. In it the flowers of spring, the grains and fruits of summer and autumn and the dead branches of winter all combine.
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Four Seasons in One Head
Italian, c. 1590
Washington, D. C., National Gallery of Art

These heads combine a keen, almost scientific, observation of natural elements, vegetable and animal, and of man-made items such as cannons, candles and books, with a playful and ingenious sense of design. Some have seen them as the result of mental illness, but they are more probably expressions of the taste for oddity and the grotesque that can be seen in much of late 16h-century art, especially of the Mannerist art that was associated with the secular courts of the time (as opposed to art intended for the decoration of churches).

Bernard Palissy, Platter
French, c, 1580
Paris, Louvre

One need only look at the “rustic” pottery of Bernard Palissy in Paris, with its casts of creepy crawlies, and at the grotesque doorways of the house built by the brothers Taddeo and Federico Zuccaro on Via Gregoriana in Rome to see this mood expressed in the minor arts and in architecture.
Palazzo Zuccari, Doorway
Italian, 1592
Rome, Via Gregoriana 28

Much of this work was regarded by patrons as clever and interesting. Emperor Rudolf II clearly felt this way about Arcimboldo’s paintings because he placed them in his Kunstkammer in Prague. A Kunstkammer (literally “art room”) was a kind of private museum of odd and curious items and included not only paintings but scientific instruments, natural specimens, clever toys, small statuary, in short, whatever unusual object appealed to the owner. 5  Emperor Rudolf’s Kunstkammer was famous throughout Europe. To be placed there was a great honor to Arcimboldo.

However, tastes in art change and the collection was broken up. It was also the victim of looting over the years and was, therefore, widely dispersed. Arcimboldo’s work virtually disappeared until it was “discovered” early in the 20th century by the Surrealists. They obviously felt an affinity with the precise detailing and odd combinations of the composite heads. Since then Arcimboldo has remained a kind of art historical curiosity.

I think of his work as a fitting subject for Halloween, as it seems to fit easily into the atmosphere of disguise and pranks that prevails in relation to this very old festival, which heralds the approach of winter.

© M. Duffy, 2011

1. For information on what is known about Arcimboldo’s early life see:

  •  Kaufmann, Thomas Da’Costa. Arcimboldo: visual jokes, natural history, and still-life painting, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2009.
  • Arcimboldo : 1526-1593, edited by Sylvia Ferino-Pagden. Milano and New York, Skira, 2007. Catalog of the exhibition held at Musée du Luxembourg, Paris, Sept. 15, 2007-Jan. 13, 2008; and at Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Feb. 12-June 1, 2008.
  • Kriegeskorte, Werner. Arcimboldo, Cologne, Taschen, 1987.

2. See #1 above.

3.  Shearman, John K. G., Mannerism, New York, Penguin, 1967 is a well-known study of the period.

4. Arcimboldo 1526 – 1593, Nature and Fantasy, text by Silvia Ferino-Pagden. Exhibition brochure National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., September 19, 2010 – January 9 , 2011.   It is available online at

5. For informaiton on the Kunstkammer or Studiolo see:

© M. Duffy, 2011

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Teresa of Avila – Mystic, Practical Woman, Doctor of the Church

Workshop of Peter Paul Rubens
St. Teresa of Avila Interceding for Souls in Purgatory
Flemish, 1630-1633
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Nada te turbe. 
Nada te espante. 
Dios no se muda. 
Todo se pasa. 
La paciencia todo lo alcanza. 
Quien a Dios tiene, nada le falta. 
Sólo Dios basta.

"Let nothing disturb thee;
Let nothing dismay thee:
All things pass;
God never changes.

Patience attains
All that it strives for.
He who has God
Finds he lacks nothing:
God alone suffices."

Saint Teresa of Avila, "Poem IX".1 

October 15 is the feastday of Saint Teresa de Jesus, also known as Teresa of Avila.

Teresa Sanchez de Cepeda y Alhumada was born in the Spanish town of Avila in 1515. In 1582 she died in one of the convents she had founded. Between these two dates she lived a life of intense prayer, intense work, frequent illness and some controversy.

She was canonized within a short period of her death (in 1622) and, in 1970, she was named a Doctor of the Church (one of four women Doctors of the 33 saints that have been honored with this title since 1298, when it was first used). A Doctor of the Church is a saint whose personal holiness and writings have contributed greatly to Catholic theological understanding.

Nineteenth Century Copy of the Only Known 
Portrait of St. Teresa Done from Life
by the Carmelite Fray Juan de la Miseria
Spanish, 1877
Madrid, Museo del Prado
Like her three female colleagues among the Doctors, Teresa’s contribution is mainly to the understanding of prayer and of the mystical life.2  She is one of the classic guides and sources for those seeking a deeper personal union with Christ. Her description of the stages through which the soul passes as it moves to greater and greater union with God is based on her own deep personal experiences, which began when she was still quite a young woman.

However, Teresa was not just a contemplative visionary, she was also a woman of action. Based on the insights she had gained from her prayer and mystical experiences, she undertook a reform of the Carmelite order, eventually establishing the branch order of the Discalced (Unshod) Carmelites.

Possibly Jusepe de Ribera, St. Teresa of Avila
Spanish, 1644
Private Collection

Her reform affected not only the women’s branch of the Carmelites, but, with the help of the Carmelite monk, her friend, fellow mystic and fellow doctor of the church, St. John of the Cross, and others, it extended to the men’s branch as well. The goal of the reform was to return to a more primitive, even stern interpretation of the Carmelite monastic rule.
Benito Mercade y Fabregas, St. Teresa Defending
Her Reform Before Gratian
Spanish, 1868
Madrid, Museo del Prado

The work of reform and the consequent work of establishing daughter houses for her nuns involved Teresa in much travel and practical work, not easy for a woman who was often in poor health and who would have preferred to spend most of her time in prayer.
Alonso Cano, Apparition of Christ
Crucified to Saint Teresa de Jesus
Spanish, 1629
Madrid, Museo del Prado

Peter Paul Rubens, St. Teresa's Vision of the Dove
Flemish, 1613-1615
Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuninger

While St. Teresa is a highly respected saint, owing to her writings, her holy and hard-working life, her many convent foundations, the inspiration she has been to the daughters and sons (nuns, brothers and priests) who continue to follow in her footsteps and her own visionary experiences, she is not exactly a favorite saint of artists. However, that might be because of the fact that one artist who responded to her story not long after her death is such a hard act to follow.

Gianlorenzo Bernini was the pre-eminent artist of the Italian Baroque. Indeed, he has often been credited with the creation of the Baroque style. Born in 1598, the son of the successful late-sixteenth-century sculptor, Pietro Bernini, he exhibited an unusually precocious talent in that difficult field (marble sculpture), while still a young boy. Very few people have ever handled marble with greater sensitivity or virtuosity.

But Gianlorenzo’s talent was not limited to marble alone, or even to sculpture alone. He was also a superlative architect, painter and creator of stunningly memorable, highly intellectual, decorative schemes. While the structure of St. Peter’s Basilica is largely the product of the great Michelangelo Buonnaroti, the interior is primarily the work of Gianlorenzo Bernini. As Maffeo Barberini (Pope Urban VIII) is reputed to have told Bernini shortly after his election “It is your great good luck, Cavaliere, to see Maffeo Barberini Pope; but We are even luckier in that the Cavaliere Bernini lives in the time of Our Pontificate”.3  Urban’s statement would be echoed by several of his successor as Pope.

One of Bernini’s greatest works, recognized as such in his own lifetime, was inspired by an experience described by St. Teresa, her Transverberation (the piercing of her heart). In her autobiography Libro de mi vida she describes the event:
Our Lord was pleased that I should have at times a vision of this kind: I saw an angel close to me, on my left side, in bodily form…. He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful–-his face burning, as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire….I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying." 4

Gianlorenzo Bernini, Cornaro Chapel
Italian, 1647-1652
Rome, Santa Maria della Vittoria
Bernini’s interpretation of the scene reveals him at the height of his creative powers, using architecture, painting, stucco work, marble, stained glass and bronze to create a great illusion that, like all the best Baroque work, draws the spectator into the “reality” of the scene before him or her. This work is the famous Cornaro Chapel, in the Roman church of Santa Marie della Vittoria (named in honor of Our Lady of Victory, a relatively new title for the Blessed Virgin in Bernini’s time). The chapel was executed between 1647 and 1652 at the behest of the Cornaro family (whose burial vault lies beneath the floor).

The chapel is relatively shallow and is situated to the right of the main altar of the church, which stands on the slopes of the Quirinal Hill in Rome. Rather than describing it myself I’m going to quote the elegant description penned by Rudolf Wittkower, the classic art historian of the Roman Baroque, in his book Gianlorenzo Bernini, The Sculptor of the Roman Baroque.
Gianlorenzo Bernini, Transverberation of 
St. Teresa of Avila
Italian, 1647-1652
Rome, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Cornaro Chapel

The Cappella Cornaro, which cannot be photographed in its entirety, is an indivisible unit from floor to ceiling. On its vaulting the painted sky opens, angels have peeled aside the clouds, so that the heavenly light falling from the Holy Dove can reach the zone in which the mortals live. Rays of this heavenly light fall on to the group of St. Teresa, and with the light has descended the seraph whose companions appear in the clouds. In the sculptured group Bernini represented the most important–the canonical–vision of the Carmelite Saint corresponding exactly with her own account of it. She described how the angel pierced her heart repeatedly with a floating golden arrow, whereupon, she continued, ‘the pain was so great that I screamed aloud; but simultaneously I felt such infinite sweetness that I wished the pain to last eternally. It was not bodily, but physical pain, although it affected to a certain extent also the body. It was sweetest caressing of the soul by God.’ With consummate skill Bernini made this scene real and visionary at the same time. The seraph, a figure of heavenly beauty, is about to pierce the heart of the Saint with the fiery arrow of love and thus effect her mystical union with Christ, the heavenly bridegroom. The Saint is swooning in an ecstatic trance, her limbs hang inert and numb, her head has sunk back, her eyes are half closed and the mouth opens in an almost audible moan. The vision takes place in an imaginary realm on a large cloud magically suspended in mid-air.
Gianlorenzo Bernini, Transverberation of St. Teresa of Avila
Italian, 1647-1652
Rome, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Cornaro Chapel
Sheltered by the large canopy of greenish, grey-blue and reddish marble and placed against an iridescent alabaster background. He group is bathed in a warm and mysterious light, falling from above through a window of yellow glass hidden behind the pediment and playing on the highly polished marble surface of the two figures. 

Along the side walls of the chapel, above the doors, eight members of the Cornaro family appear behind prie-deus which have been compared with theatre boxes. The portraits stand out almost three-dimensionally before a colored and gild stucco perspective in flat relief representing the interior of a church. Since the two sides are made to look like parts of the same interior, the fictitious architecture and the architecture of the real chapel seem to interpenetrate. This creates the illusion that the Cornaro family is sitting in an extension of the space in which we move.

When standing on the central axis opposite the group of St. Teresa, it becomes apparent that the chapel is too shallow for the members of the Cornaro family to see the miracle on the altar. For that reason Bernini has shown them arguing, reading and pondering, certainly about what they know is happening on he altar, but which is hidden from their eyes.
Gianlorenzo Bernini, Members of the Cornaro Family
Italian, 1647-1652
Rome, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Cornaro Chapel
Gianlorenzo Bernini, Members of the Cornaro Family
Italian, 1647-1652
Rome, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Cornaro Chapel

Gianlorenzo Bernini, Skeleton
Italian, 1647-1652
Rome, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Cornaro Chapel

Under the pavement of the chapel is the family tomb chamber, and on the cover of the vault two inlaid skeletons seem to express their surprise at the miracle with lively gesticulation. Thus not only the ceiling and the walls but even the pavement forms part of the grand dynamic unit.

Gianlorenzo Bernini, Skeleton
Italian, 1647-1652
Rome, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Cornaro Chapel

It is the suggestive characterization, within one integrated whole, of the different realms of Man, Saint and Godhead that substantiates the belief in the existence of this mystic hierarchy of things. Like the Cornaro family, the worshipper participates in the supra-human mystery shown on the altar, and if he yields entirely to the ingenious and elaborate directives given by the artist, he will step beyond the narrow limits of his own existence and be entranced with the causality of an enchanted world. “5


1. From  Complete Works St. Teresa of  Avila (1963) edited by E. Allison Peers, Vol. 3, p. 288.

2.  The other three female doctors of the church are:  Saint Catherine of Siena, Saint Therese of Lisieux and Saint Hildegard of Bingen.

3. Wittkower, Rudolf. Gianlorenzo Bernini, The Sculptor of the Roman Baroque, London, The Phaidon Press, Second edition, 1966, p.7. 

4.  Teresa of Avila. The Life of St. Teresa de Jesus, Teddington, Middelsex, The Echo Library, 2006, Chapter XXIX, Section 16-17, p. 197. Accessible at

5. Wittkower, Rudolf. Gianlorenzo Bernini, The Sculptor of the Roman Baroque, London, The Phaidon Press, Second edition, 1966, pp. 25-26.

© M. Duffy, 2011

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Paintings As Scientific Documents?

After Frans Hals, Malle Babbe
Dutch, Second quarter of 17th century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
This past week has seen me sick with some viral bug that is making the rounds of New York City. So, this essay is a bit late and for that I apologize. I was going to write a review of the small exhibition of the work of the 17th-century Dutch painter Frans Hals that is currently at the Metropolitan Museum.1

The exhibition is primarily based on the Met’s own collection of his works. I have visited it several times and had been saving writing a review until a period when subject matter might be scarce. Unfortunately, I waited too long. When I checked the exhibition dates today, I discovered that—gasp—it closes on Monday (October 10, one of the Met’s rare holiday Monday openings). So, unless you are in the New York area and can get to the Met by closing time Monday, it will be too late.

Since that is the case I am going to shift this essay from a straightforward review of the Hals exhibition to some musings on an issue that arises from one painting that is included in the show. This is the picture known as “Malle Babbe”. Once considered to be the original it was reassessed some time ago and is now considered to be a copy after Hals.

Frans Hals, Malle Babbe
Dutch, 1631-1633
Berlin, Gemaeldegalerie
A nearly identical portrait of the same person now in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin has been recognized as the true Hals original (click for high resolution image). The two paintings are extremely closely related, as a side by side comparison between details of the Met’s version and the Berlin version in the final room of the exhibition demonstrates (the Berlin painting is represented only by reproductions of details). If a copy, the Met’s painting is the work of an artist who was able to copy not only Hals’ composition, but his technique as well. It is an intriguing problem for the connoisseur.

However, what I’ve been reflecting on is not the painting itself, but its subject matter. Malle Babbe was the popular name for a woman who was an inmate in the workhouse in Haarlem, the town where Hals lived. The owl on her shoulder, a symbol of wisdom in classical antiquity, had become by this time the symbol for a fool. 2 The fact that there are several versions or copies of this painting is very suggestive. It accords with other paintings of such human oddities found in the work of other 17th century painters.

Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Red Hat
Dutch, c. 1665-1666
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art
Clearly, there was an interest in recording the appearance of unusual people during this century that sets it apart from earlier periods. And this accords with the rise of scientific inquiry in the 17th century. This is the century that begins with the work of Galileo. It also includes the Vatican led reform of the calendar (change from the old Roman Julian calendar to the more scientifically correct Gregorian calendar, named for Pope Gregory XIII) and the development of complex mathematics such as calculus by Leibniz and Newton. It concludes with the publication of Isaac Newton’s Principia (1687).
Johannes Vermeer, Woman with a Water Jug
Dutch, c. 1662
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the world of 17th-century Dutch painting, it also includes Vermeer’s experiments with the camera obsura that give his work such immediacy.

It would appear that part of the burgeoning of science in the 17th century was an interest in human diversity. And this is true not only in the Protestant Netherlands but also in Catholic Italy and Spain. Paintings exist whose subject matter is not just the insane, but dwarfs and other human oddities.

In Spain, Diego Velazquez painted several portraits of the dwarfs who served as members of the Spanish royal household.

Diego Velazquez, Dwarf known as
Don Antonio el Ingles,
Spanish, 1640-1642
Madrid, Prado
Diego Velazquez, Dwarf known as
Sebastian de Morra
Spanish, 1641-1642
Madrid, Prado

In the 17th century many “little people” served in this capacity, as entertainers and as servant “pets” to royal masters.  Today, this may seem undignified and even cruel but, in the world 400 years ago, for a small person unable to find work in occupations that required stature, strength or stamina, this may have been a blessing.

Jusepe Ribera, Boy with a Clubfoot
Spanish, 1642
Paris, Louvre

In addition, in southern Italy, the transplanted Spanish painter Jusepe Ribera painted the portrait of a boy with a clubfoot.  His deformity is clearly visible, but so is his engaging, cheeky personality. 

Jusepe Ribera, Magdalena Venturi with
Her Husband and Son
Spanish, 1631
Toledo, Museo Fundacion Duque de Lerma

Ribera also painted the portrait of a most unusual family, a bearded woman with her husband and baby.

Today these paintings may seem bizarre, but we ourselves are barely removed from the carnival freak show in which people like these would have been on exhibit.

Rather than viewing these pictures with disdain or anger I suspect that we should view them as interesting documents of a burgeoning scientific point of view.

1. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Frans Hals in the Metropolitan Museum, July 26 – October 10, 2011,

2. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Catalogue Entry,

© M. Duffy, 2011

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

St. Francis of Assisi

Giotto ?, Sermon to the Birds
Italian, 1297-1300
Assisi, Basilica of St. Francis, Upper Level
A bout of something very much resembling the flu has prevented me from doing the research for the full-length essay on the iconography of St. Francis, which I had planned. But St. Francis is such an important and beloved saint that I can’t let his feast day pass without some acknowledgment. So, I will just point you to the extensive series of frescoes painted, shortly after his death, in the upper church of the basilica in his honor at Assisi.

The story of St. Francis is relatively well known. Perhaps no saint in the history of the Christian Church in the West has been so influential, so beloved, so misunderstood. From his own time to the present he has been made the subject of legends and stories. He has even been the subject of several movies. He is the goofy saint who talks to animals, the holy fool, the proto-hippie, sometimes seen as slightly mad. Yet, in reality his story and his joyful attempt to imitate Christ by a life of poverty, humility and service to the poor, is the spark that has ignited many souls to search for God and spend their own lives in serving the poor.

The Young Francis Receives a Vision While Praying
Italian, 1297-1300
Assisi, Basilica of St. Francis, Upper Level
The outlines of his real life story are fairly well known. Francesco Bernadone was born in the Umbrian town of Assisi in 1182 into a family of merchants. As a youth he had a fairly privileged and sheltered life. During a period of illness in 1205 he underwent the beginnings of a conversion to a more spiritual life and began to try to serve the poor.

Following his understanding of the message he had received in a vision, Francis sold some of his father’s stock of cloth to begin the task of rebuilding a ruined church on the outskirts of their town. His father was, understandably, angry about this and the ensuing battle of wills led Francis to renounce all worldly possessions and attachments, even the clothing he wore.

Francis Renounces Worldly Possessions
Italian, 1297-1300
Assisi, Basilica of St. Francis, Upper Level
 Attired in garments he acquired by begging, Francis began his life of total poverty, begging his clothing, food and the building materials with which he repaired various local churches. He also began to preach the joy of poverty and service in imitation of Christ and to attract other men to follow him.

In 1209 he drew up a simple rule for his “friars” and requested Papal approval. Pope Innocent III eventually agreed and in 1210 the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor was recognized by the Church.

The Rule is Confirmed by Pope Innocent III
Italian, 1297-1300
Assisi, Basilica of St. Francis, Upper Level

With St. Clare of Assisi he also founded the order of women that became known as the Poor Clares. Later, for those who wanted to associate themselves with him and his ideas he founded the Third Order for ordinary people not able or willing to leave their secular lives. All three orders still exist to this day. They have also sprouted a sometimes bewildering group of branches as well. In addition to several different Catholic sets of Franciscan friars and sisters there are Anglican and other Protestant Franciscans.

Giotto ?, St. Francis Receives the Stigmata,
Italian, 1297-1300
Assisi, Basilica of St. Francis, Upper Level
Francis is the first known person to receive the Stigmata, the visible wounds of Christ. He died on October 3, 1226 and was formally canonized two years later.

 That same year, 1228, a magnificent two-level basilica in his honor was begun in his hometown of Assisi. It was consecrated in 1253.

Near the end of the century the upper church was decorated with frescoes depicting the life of Francis and some of the legends that had already arisen in the 70 years since his death.

St. Francis Prepares the First Christmas Crib at Greccio
Italian, 1297-1300
Assisi, Basilica of St. Francis, Upper Level
 A number of artists were engaged in the decoration, including the Roman Jacopo Torriti and the Florentine Cimabue and his pupil, Giotto. Attribution of the frescoes is disputed, but many have seen in them the first works of Giotto.

Although severely damaged in an earthquake in 1997 (when four people were killed during an aftershock), the basilica and the frescoes have been repaired and the basilica was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 (

Francis’ greatest legacy, of course, is not the building in Assisi nor the frescoes that decorate it nor the other works of art inspired by his story, but the good done by the countless men and women who, over the last 800 years, have followed in his footsteps.

you helped Saint Francis to reflect the image of Christ
through a life of poverty and humility.
May we follow your Son
by walking in the footsteps of Francis of Assisi,
and by imitating his joyful love.
Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(Memorial Prayer from Morning Prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours for Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, October 4)

© M. Duffy, 2011