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A medieval saint in modern times

By Kandice Rawlings

Saint Francis of Assisi died on this day in 1226, and when he was canonized just two years later, the fourth of October became his feast day. Even before his sainthood was official, St Francis was a popular figure among the faithful, and the religious order he had founded already had chapters throughout Europe. The troubled medieval papacy, keen to co-opt Francis’s popularity, fast-tracked his canonization, commissioned an official biography (while censoring previous versions), and constructed and decorated a monumental church dedicated to him in his hometown in the central Italian region of Umbria.

Interior of the basilica of San Francesco in Assisi. Photo by Ugo franchini at it.wikipedia, published under the GNU Free Documentation License via Wikimedia Commons.

San Francesco in Assisi, the saint’s burial site, was decorated extensively with frescoes by the leading Italian painters of the late 13th and early 14th centuries, including the most complete visual narrative of the saint, the so-called Legend of St Francis cycle in the Upper Church (San Francesco has an unusual design with two main spaces – the Lower Church houses Francis’s tomb). These frescoes, to which Giotto probably contributed, tell how the young Francis abandoned his life as a wealthy playboy and adventuring soldier. He gave up all his worldly possessions, fixed up some dilapidated churches in Assisi, and began wandering from town to town, preaching and begging. He soon had a following, and he received official sanction for his order when Pope Innocent III approved his rule (the tenets by which the Franciscan friars lived) in 1209. The frescoes at Assisi also depict episodes representing the Franciscan vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience – such as Francis giving his coat to a poor beggar and kneeling before the pope who had just confirmed the Franciscan rule. The paintings also demonstrate Francis’s holiness, depicting numerous miracles and his stigmatization – the miraculous appearance on his body of the wounds Christ suffered during the Crucifixion.

St Francis receiving the stigmata is one of the most common depictions of the saint, but the image of St Francis as a lover of animals is likely very recognizable to the general public. You’ve probably seen one of those little garden statues of a monk in a long hooded robe with some birds perched on him – that’s our guy! These make reference, like the fresco from the Assisi cycle (below) to an episode in Francis’s life recorded in several of his early biographies, including the Little Flowers of St Francis. While out walking with some other friars, he came upon a flock of birds that were chirping and twittering loudly. He decided to preach to them, and they fell silent and listened, flying away only when he had finished his sermon and given them his blessing. This charming scene stands for a broader theme of Francis’s devotion to and reverence for all of God’s creation. 

Legend of St Francis: 15. Sermon to the Birds. Between 1297 and 1299. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The visual and literary traditions documenting St Francis’s life have kept his ideas alive nearly eight centuries after his death. As part of the feast day celebrations, which have branched out into different religions, some faithful bring their pets or livestock to church or synagogue for the blessing of the animals. The fourth of October is also World Animal Day, an interfaith, international holiday, raising money for animal and ecological causes. St Francis’s legacy also lives on with Pope Francis I. Since he was elected just over six months ago, he has been making quite a splash, in part by showing a dedication to the teachings of his namesake. He has suggested that Catholics redirect their attention toward the church’s mission of helping the poor, and has spoken about the Christian basis for environmental stewardship.

Kandice Rawlings is Associate Editor of Oxford Art Online, historian of Italian Renaissance art, and cat owner. 

Oxford Art Online offers access to the most authoritative, inclusive, and easily searchable online art resources available today. Through a single, elegant gateway users can access — and simultaneously cross-search — an expanding range of Oxford’s acclaimed art reference works: Grove Art Online, the Benezit Dictionary of Artists, the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, The Oxford Companion to Western Art, and The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art Terms, as well as many specially commissioned articles and bibliographies available exclusively online.

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