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‘Saint Francis of Assisi’

  • Art
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Michelangelo Merisi da CaravaggioSaint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy, about 1595-96
Michelangelo Merisi da CaravaggioSaint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy, about 1595-96 © Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art / photo: Allen Phillips

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Saint Francis of Assisi, by all accounts, was a pretty good guy. He gave up wealth and luxury for pious poverty in order to better serve God. He cared for his fellow man, nature and animals, and in his tattered robes he founded the Franciscan brotherhood. Combine all that with trying to convert the Sultan of Egypt to Christinanity, performing various miracles and then being whacked with a stigmata and you’ve got the makings of a top-notch saint. 

And following his canonisation in 1228 (when he was made into a saint, not a big gun) he became an inspiration to not just everyday Christians but countless artists too.

Sadly, this show opens with the worst of them. An Antony Gormely sculpture, a cast of the artist’s own body, greets you as you walk in, its arms splayed showing the stigmata. I’m sure showing yourself as a saint touched by the mark of Christ is exactly the kind of humility Francis would have been into.

Fortunately, just behind Gorms is Francisco de Zurbaran’s deeply tenebrous image of Saint Francis kneeling in ecstatic meditation. His clothes are ripped rags, his mouth is agape with wonder. It’s sombre and beautiful. 

What you’re watching unfurl in this show is the birth of a myth. Saint Francis’s life is told first through seven gleaming panels from Sassetta’s 1437 altarpiece for San Francesco in Sansepolcro. He starts by giving his clothes to a poor knight, then, standing nude in a world of shimmering pink, he renounces his own father in favour of god. He braves flames to meet the Sultan of Egypt, he negotiates peace with a bloodthirsty wolf, he is struck by stigmata. Across these gorgeous, glowing paintings, a saint is born.

Huge drama, deep emotion and endless devotion

Other artists quickly follow in Sassetta’s footsteps. There’s a tiny, stunning Botticelli caked in gold, another sombre, miserable Zurbaran, a gorgeous, compressed Fra Angelico showing Saint Francis enduring trial by fire. And then the big stuff: a ludicrously soft-focus Murillo, a searingly bright blue El Greco, and more stigmatas than you can shake a hole puncher at. The one Caravaggio is worth the price of admission alone. Half the canvas lies in total darkness, the other finds Saint Francis lying broken, bloodied and exhausted in the arms of an angel. Huge drama, deep emotion and endless devotion condensed down into one image.

It’s amazing how singular and enduring the image of Francis in his tattered rags is. It’s the same in modern works as it is in classical ones. He preaches to birds in a stark Andrea Büttner lino cut, he’s reduced down to nothing but sackcloth in an Alberto Burri abstract, he’s even austere and minimal in the 1980 Marvel comic based on his life. It’s a multi-generational meme, passed down through the centuries.

There are missteps here (that Gormley sculpture, a big Giuseppe Penone tree which feels too tangential to work) but the real issue goes a little deeper. It feels uncomfortable that the story of Saint Francis is taken at face value. The Church view of this meek man choosing poverty, piety and subservience is seen as plain-and-simple neutral good. No one questions why the Church would want this narrative to be so pervasive and ubiquitous, how the story of his life has been used to create pliable, obedient subjects of the Catholic Church. A lot of what’s on show was painted specifically to help the showy Catholic Church fight the austere Protestant Reformation. This is art as propaganda, as political power. 

But there’s enough stunning beauty here to overwhelm the senses and get you feeling quasi-religious, even if it doesn’t quite make you want to ditch your Levis and Adidas for a life in rags.

Eddy Frankel
Written by
Eddy Frankel


Opening hours:
10am to 6pm
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