In times of crisis, faithful turn to St. Francis

First slide

A 400-year-old book that afforded a “virtual” journey to the site of the stigmatization of St. Francis provided the impetus for a thought-provoking, soul-enhancing exhibit now on view in Washington.

st francis sq

This 15th-century miniature on vellum by Cosme Tura titled "Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata" is on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. COURTESY NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART | CNS

St. Francis of Assisi is the third-most-important figure in Christian art, after Jesus and the Virgin Mary. The key moment in his life was his reception of the stigmata, the wounds of Christ, at La Verna mountain in 1224, when the crucified Christ appeared to him in the form of a six-winged seraph. This miracle sparked a new kind of representational immediacy in art that led to the Renaissance.

“Heavenly Earth: Images of St. Francis at La Verna” at the National Gallery of Art gathers 29 seldom seen prints, drawings, books and a precious miniature, crowned by the oil painting “Francis in Prayer” (c. 1620) by Italian master Bernardo Strozzi, himself once a Franciscan priest.

The works span a wide variety of media, from the earliest woodcuts to intricate etchings and paintings, including images created by some of the most famous names in Western art, such as Rembrandt, Rubens, Titian and Zurbaran.

“At moments of crises within the institution of the church, the story of Francis and his personal embodiment of Christ’s life and suffering has been reaffirmed and updated,” said Jonathan Bober, curator of prints and drawings at the National Gallery. “The tale of Francis and his identification with divinity is of special new relevance today. It is relevant to every life that seeks to live more truly by its values and looks to institutional reform to embody those values.”

Not by accident, he added, the present pope chose the name of Francis.

francis vertical

This 17th-century oil on canvas painting by Bernardo Strozzi titled "Saint Francis in Prayer" is part of the "Heavenly Earth: Images of Saint Francis at La Verna" exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. COURTESY NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART | CNS

 Response to Protestant criticism

One such deep crisis occurred in the 16th century, when the Protestant Reformation challenged the Catholic faith all over Europe and the church responded with the Counter-Reformation. Two-thirds of the images in this show date from between 1580 and 1620, the height of that crisis.

 In 1608, the Franciscan friar Lino Moroni invited Florentine artist Jacopo Ligozzi to go to La Verna and draw the site’s features. Ligozzi, renowned for his accurate depictions of flora and fauna, has been called the Audubon of Renaissance Florence. Two copies of the resulting book, “Description of the Sacred Mountain of La Verna,” recently were acquired by the National Gallery of Art. Cataloguing the book’s 22 illustrations, curator Ginger Hammer got the idea for the exhibit.

The two rare books follow a tradition of “mental pilgrimage books” that enabled cloistered monks and nuns to visit the holy sites virtually. But while earlier such books were text-heavy, the Ligozzi volume was based on images with alphabetical keys to each element. Anticipating today’s pop-up books, flaps can be lifted on some pages to see what’s beneath, for example the “bed” or rock slab on which Francis slept, hidden behind boulders.

Hammer says that such books had been created before for scientific subjects such as anatomy, but the Ligozzi-Moroni volumes may be the first to apply this medium to a religious subject.

Earlier portrayals of the stigmatization were imaginative recreations by artists who had never seen La Verna.

Other highlights of the show, on view until July 8, include:

• Tiny hand-colored woodcuts sold to pilgrims who flocked to the saint’s tomb in Assisi in the 1400s. Depicting Francis receiving the Stigmata, each of the prints (one Italian, two German) would have once existed in the thousands, but only one or two copies survive.

• A painted initial by Cosme Tura, excised from an illuminated manuscript. St. Francis kneels in the foreground, his feet (unusually) in a stream that flows to a friar (Brother Leo) in the background next to a church. The water evokes baptism.

• An unfinished drypoint print by Rembrandt showing St. Francis praying before a crucifix in the wilderness.

• An engraving of the Stigmatization designed by Rubens. He portrays the seraph as a blazing light that astounds distant farmers.

• An engraving of “The Pardon of Assisi” after Federico Barocci. It depicts Christ granting to the kneeling Francis a papal pardon for the poor of Assisi who could not afford to travel to Rome.

• Drawings and prints by the Carracci family of artists, leaders of a return to naturalism in religious art in Bologna and Rome in the late 16th century.

• Cutting-edge woodcuts, including a dynamic Stigmatization designed by the Venetian artist Titian, and a “chiaroscuro woodcut” using four different blocks to print in a range of colors and tones.

• Tender images of the St. Francis legend that became popular in Catholic lands in the late 1500s, including St. Francis receiving the Christ Child in his arms from the Virgin Mary, and St. Francis, suffering from the stigmata, being comforted by a violin-playing angel.

Hamerman is a freelance writer from Reston.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018