Giotto, Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata

Is that fear in his eyes? Saint Francis betrays human emotions as Giotto unites the earthly and heavenly realms.

Giotto di Bondone, Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata with predella scenes of the Dream of Innocent III, The Pope Approving the Rule of the Order, and Saint Francis Preaching to the Birds, c. 1295–1300, tempera and gold on panel, 3.13 x 1.63 m, originally in the Church of San Francesco, Pisa, original frame inscribed: “OPUS IOCTI FIORETINI” (Musée du Louvre, Paris)


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This work at the Musée du Louvre


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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the Louvre, and we’re looking at a large altar panel by Giotto of Saint Francis. It’s a really spectacular painting.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:11] It is. It shows Saint Francis receiving the stigmata from Christ, who appeared to him in the form of a seraphim. What’s striking is that this is not Saint Francis in a very iconic frontal way…

Dr. Zucker: [0:24] As we might have expected in a more medieval tradition.

Dr. Harris: [0:26] Exactly. Instead, Francis is kneeling. He’s in a naturalistic landscape, or the beginnings, we could say, of a naturalistic landscape. And as he receives the stigmata, he looks up in wonder and awe and confusion, and even some anxiety, I think.

Dr. Zucker: [0:44] A little fear there, right?

Dr. Harris: [0:45] Yeah.

Dr. Zucker: [0:45] But they are very human emotions. It’s an expression of — you’re right — not an eternal iconic image, but rather of a moment of a man responding.

Dr. Harris: [0:56] His body is rendered naturalistically, too. We have modeling, we see the folds in the drapery, we see his left knee, his right knee folded under him, the modeling in his hands, where we see the stigmata, modeling in his face. He really seems like this bulky, three-dimensional presence, really different from the flat, transcendent figures of only a little bit earlier.

Dr. Zucker: [1:19] And actually other artists that are still painting. I want to go back to that point you made a moment ago of the naturalistic landscape, because this is certainly not naturalism as we would expect now in the 21st century.

[1:28] But it is, at the very beginning of the 14th or the very end of the 13th century, quite an extraordinary innovation to place this really physical figure, as you had described him, in an environment with trees, with a mountain.

Dr. Harris: [1:41] Clearly, his scale doesn’t match the buildings and the trees, but there’s an effort here by Giotto to place him on Earth, not just in a heavenly space.

Dr. Zucker: [1:50] We see this extraordinary gold-filled background. The light of heaven pours down. We see that literally in the divine rays that go from the seraphim, from Christ, down to Francis, down to his feet, to his hands, and to the wound in his side. This gift from heaven for his faithfulness.

[2:07] Now, it’s important to remember that Francis was a mendicant, was a beggar. That he had given up his worldly possessions. Like the Dominicans, the Franciscans would renounce worldly possessions in honor of Christ.

[2:18] Initially, there were some reports that the church was not sure that it wanted to accept Saint Francis’ ideas. The predella below is important because it shows very much the acceptance of Francis.

Dr. Harris: [2:30] We have these three scenes below in the predella showing Pope Innocent III’s vision of Francis supporting a church. The next, of blessing that order of the followers of Saint Francis, the Franciscans. Then Saint Francis preaching to the birds.

Dr. Zucker: [2:47] Those are all really interesting stories. This dream of the pope, this great miracle, in which he dreamt that Francis was not only supporting a church but was supporting a church that was falling down, is a crucial allegory, of course, or metaphor. The acceptance of Francis, the central scene, very, very important. Literally the embrace of the church to this mendicant order.

Dr. Harris: [3:08] Legitimizing it.

Dr. Zucker: [3:09] That’s right. Absolutely legitimizing. If you think about it for a moment, the mendicants did represent a threat. The church was a very wealthy institution. It was a very powerful institution. Here were these followers of Christ saying, “Christ preached poverty. I’m taking that on.” For the church to embrace that was a very important step.

[3:26] Then of course on the right, this relationship between Francis and nature. Francis living in the desert or living in the wilderness, having this direct relationship with all of God’s creation, is placed here. One of the reasons that Francis is often linked to ecological movements and often seen as a patron of nature.

Dr. Harris: [3:46] I love the way he reaches out toward the animals. The way that the figures are very stark against that gold background so they’re in this heavenly realm but simultaneously in an earthly realm. It seems to me that Giotto has united both.

Dr. Zucker: [4:02] There’s a simplicity to Giotto’s work that includes a kind of emotional directness that I think has made his work seem incredibly authentic for many, many years. Artists are constantly looking back to the so-called Italian primitives for that sort of direct vision. Here we have it at its most beautiful.

[4:19] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Giotto, Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata," in Smarthistory, November 23, 2015, accessed July 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/giotto-st-francis-of-assisi-receiving-the-stigmata/.