Inventing the image of Saint Francis

A new image of a new saint in the Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence.

St. Francis and scenes from his life, 1240s–1260s, panel (Bardi Chapel, Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence). Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker


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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in Santa Croce, in Florence, the great Franciscan church.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:09] We’re standing close to the main altar. This is an overwhelming space, much of it covered with fresco painting and the main apse occupied by an enormous altarpiece.

Dr. Zucker: [0:20] The space is vast, and it speaks to the huge crowds that were flocking to the Franciscans.

Dr. Harris: [0:25] They were an enormously popular order.

Dr. Zucker: [0:28] The Franciscans are mendicants. That is, they’re one of the begging orders, like the Dominicans. Saint Francis gave up his worldly possessions and his followers do the same.

Dr. Harris: [0:39] Both the Franciscans and the Dominicans were relatively new religious orders that specifically located themselves in the cities in Italy and elsewhere in order to preach to an urban population.

Dr. Zucker: [0:51] Cities like Florence had become newly wealthy in the 1200s, the 1300s, and especially in the 1400s, and they grew rapidly.

[0:59] Now, of course there were the bankers and merchants, but there were also many poor people. And the Dominicans and Franciscans especially saw it as their mission to preach to the poor.

[1:10] The wealthy elites of Florence saw the Franciscans as a pathway for their own redemption. And so they give the Franciscans large amounts of money, which allowed them to build churches, but it also allowed them to minister to the poor.

Dr. Harris: [1:22] These wealthy merchants and bankers provide for chapels as a place of burial for their families and gave money to the church so that the friars could say prayers on their behalf — the idea that prayers said on your behalf here on earth could help release you sooner from purgatory so that you could get to heaven.

Dr. Zucker: [1:41] We’re standing not only beside the high altar but also in front of a large panel painting. Now, this painting of Saint Francis was produced only a couple of decades after Saint Francis’ death.

Dr. Harris: [1:52] He died in 1226 and was canonized, was made a saint, in 1228.

Dr. Zucker: [1:57] Here is a contemporary man, a man who people might have actually remembered, being represented in the center of this painting almost as if he was a Byzantine icon. The icon tradition tends to focus on the figure, not in a narrative context, not telling stories. But here we have both. We have that central figure that’s functioning almost like an icon, but surrounded by narratives.

Dr. Harris: [2:19] Here, Francis stands in the center, completely frontal, surrounded by gold, that gold coming from that Byzantine tradition. In this format, we see the central figure, surrounded by apron scenes, or scenes that tell the story of his life, his miracles, and his ministry.

Dr. Zucker: [2:37] This is one of eight 13th-century paintings of St. Francis in this format, although there’s a lot of local variation.

Dr. Harris: [2:44] Some show as few as four apron scenes. This one has 20 scenes from Francis’ life and miracles.

Dr. Zucker: [2:51] The earliest of these paintings is in the town of Pescia, not far from Florence, and that shows six apron scenes. Let’s focus on two scenes that are most often represented. The earlier of the two is in the leftmost column. It’s Francis preaching to the birds.

Dr. Harris: [3:06] We see Francis with two friars on the left, and on the right, a stylized tree with birds perched on branches, and beside that, stylized rows of different kinds of birds.

Dr. Zucker: [3:18] Francis’s biographers tell us that Francis preached to the birds as if they were rational beings, and that the birds responded.

Dr. Harris: [3:26] What we’re learning is that the Franciscans have a mission to preach to everyone.

Dr. Zucker: [3:32] Two scenes to the right is probably the single most commonly represented image of Francis. This is the moment when he receives the stigmata. According to Francis’ biographers, late in his life, Francis has a vision. He sees a seraph — angel — on a crucifix, and soon after, the wounds that Christ received on the cross appear on Francis’s body.

[3:54] This miracle is seen as an expression of his affinity with Christ, the way in which he had lived his life so closely to Christ that he was given this divine gift. The background is gold, and three rays emanate from the seraph and reach Francis. This compositional strategy will be influential in the next century. Artists like Giotto will create more naturalistic renderings of this very scene.

Dr. Harris: [4:19] One of my favorite parts are the little roundels that show Franciscan friars that are positioned at the corners of each of the apron scenes. They give us a sense that Franciscan friars were close to Francis himself, and that we can be close to Francis and Christ through the ministry of the Franciscans.

[4:38] In the central panel, Francis is elongated. His right hand is in a gesture of blessing, it’s very clear that he’s showing us the stigmata.

Dr. Zucker: [4:47] Francis is shown wearing rough brown cloth, and he’s shown barefoot. These are signs of his self-imposed poverty, and if you look closely at his belt, you’ll see that it’s just plain rope, but it’s knotted three times. The three knots represent his vows: poverty, chastity, and obedience.

Dr. Harris: [5:04] So, while there were those who criticized Franciscans for building churches as lavish as this one, the Franciscans held that doing so helped them in their ministry.

[5:15] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Inventing the image of Saint Francis," in Smarthistory, May 7, 2020, accessed June 16, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/inventing-the-image-of-saint-francis/.