Faces of St. Francis

By Eugenio Hansen, OFS (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

By Eugenio Hansen, OFS (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I’m a big fan of nature. My pagan soul loves this painting. I’m a bird fan, not quite a bird nerd, because I don’t know the names of all those pictured. I have never lived in the tropics, but the raw enthusiasm for God’s exuberant bounty is something I can still enjoy without feeling jaded.

This is not really a rant about the awful goody-goody image of St. Francis of Assisi, (been there. Done that) or as they call him in the other half of the American Continent “St. Francis of the Wounds”.  Knowing this, it is hard to really accuse them of being naive.

This is an innocent expression of piety, in the form of melagros. And they aren’t all happy happy, either.  Well, the real ones aren’t always.  Frequently, they are paintings of events that happened in the life of the penitent, who commissions an artist in the family, or paints it him or her self. We see something in this tradition below.  Those trees and birds are pretty awesome.  Just remember that falling into a river is actually a pretty big deal, especially in a jungle. For all I know, being a dumb American, this could be the Amazon. Talk about a river you don’t want to just fall into.

By Eugenio Hansen, OFS (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

And… on to some earlier art from the 12th Century.

Who does this remind you of?

Bonaventura Berlinghieri [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Neeeeexxxxxt…. Patience. I want you to see both of these first.

Bonaventura Berlinghieri [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Yes. Same artist. I’m probably belaboring the point, but… this is a painting from an altarpiece, built in Thomas Aquinas’ lifetime.  Granted, young Thomas was probably 10 or 12 at the time.  Also, keep in mind this was painted *10-15 years tops* after the death of St. Francis.  I know we see them as superstitious fools today, but there were a lot of folks with a jaundiced view in those days, especially about personal holiness– and even about the existence of God, let alone a merciful and loving God.  We just happen to like thinking we are smarter so we can pooh pooh their greatest accomplishments merely through the benefit of being born later in history.

If you are noticing that these iconographic images (still called the gothic style…) are vaguely familiar– that’s because this is usually how Christ was portrayed. So, basically this is even beyond canonizing him before his body has barely cooled. This is showing that they feel he had not only followed Christ, but exhibited Christ’s love and life through his life, and God’s grace, of course. That is a pretty modern sentiment, though it is also one that has always been doctrine. “Be perfect as the Lord is perfect.”

Bartolomeo della Gatta [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

See, what we forget is that those medievals had it rough. They would LONG for the succession of scandals we have today.  Even if you ignore the vast differences in the standard of living– the church on Earth had many bad examples in her ranks.  It was often in bed with the government– both figuratively and literally. So many of the monks and nuns  orders were vehicles for the nobility, depositing excess progeny safely out of the line of succession. Once there, they lived lives of, ahem prayer (we hope!) and leisure, but also had friends with benefits, and other cushy luxuries that poor members of the same order would never have. Those who were poor served their wealthier brothers and sisters in Christ, so as to give them the life to which they were accustomed.

Francis and his ilk changed all that. The Franciscan order really took off because he was a member of the new upper middle class that publically denounced all of his wealth and walked into the Church’s open arms… naked.  You have to admit, that takes balls and panache.  I can’t say it was great for family honor, or his father’s (theoretical) heart condition.  But he certainly reminded a jaded and tired time, sick and tired of being sick and tired, that God still loved them, still walked among them– even in the heart of a slightly demented spoiled son of a cloth factor– who gained a heart of flesh and walked amongst them.

You can hardly blame his younger contemporaries for being enthusiastic.

Domenico Veneziano [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

And THAT my friends, is the name our current Pope has taken.  Because we are world weary, not in our poverties but in our excesses. Or perhaps, as Pope Francis (and Mother Theresa) would say, our spiritual poverties.  And we need a reminder of what it is to live with a heart of flesh.

At first, I'd thought this was a picture of St. Dominic being rescued from the woods... then I realized the man had a rosary. *facepalm*

Orazio Gentileschi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Albert Chevallier Tayler (oil on canvas) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


José Benlliure y Gil [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

So our open hearted enthusiasm for St. Francis of Assisi has a long and remarkable history. It was difficult picking out the best.  I wanted to show them all, but this is going to be a browser tail dragger as it is.

If the last picture looks… awkward and crude to your eyes, that’s because you are looking at it too up-close. This has a particular viewing distance that helps you see it as the artist saw it in his mind. It’s pretty remarkable when you look at it like that. What is interesting is that the first picture has a similar optimal view distance, and if you look at it too close, it looks blurry.

Oh, and I’m obsessed with the stigmata because it is the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.

Er…. or at least it was.

José Benlliure y Gil [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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