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St. Francis, up close and personal

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When the new Holy Father took the name of Pope Francis, he reminded the world of a much-loved saint who reformed the church in the 13th century with his message of poverty and humility. The Franciscan movement also inspired countless works of art after Francis of Assisi died in 1226, portraying Francis as a "second Christ."

One of these is "St. Francis in Ecstasy," painted around 1595 in Rome by Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio for his hometown in Lombardy. It is featured in the exhibit "Caravaggio and His Legacy" currently completing its tour at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn. Dispensing with secondary elements, the artist yanks us into the presence of the saint, forcing us to experience his pain and joy, and reminding us that the task of "rebuilding my church" that Christ entrusted to Francis began with an experience of self-transformation.

This was the 24-year-old Caravaggio's first religious painting. It came historically at a moment the church was on the move, responding to the challenge of the Protestant break from Rome. By now the Friars Minor founded by St. Francis were old-timers. New movements like those initiated by Sts. Teresa of Avila and Philip Neri were revitalizing the church.

Above all there were the Jesuits - the society to which Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio belonged before his elevation to the Holy See. Their founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola, wanted Jesuits-in-training to serve the poor and sick in the humblest ways. Ignatius wanted to be "like St. Francis and St. Dominic," only better. Ignatian spirituality is rooted in the conviction that God is active, personal and above all, present to us in our everyday life. This attitude stimulated a new and more personal way of looking at the great saints.

After the stigmata

In his biography of the friar, St. Bonaventure related that Francis came to pray on Mount Verna near Florence in the company of Brother Leo, who fell asleep - like the disciples of Jesus at Gethsemane. There, a crucified seraphim appeared to Francis and stamped on his body the five wounds that Christ endured in the crucifixion (stigmata). The earliest artists depicting the miracle took care to draw lines of light streaming from the vision to Francis' hands, feet and heart.

By 1595, there was no need to prove the stigmatization; it was universally accepted. Not the literal story of the miracle but its spiritual effect interested Caravaggio. Francis lies motionless on the ground as if undergoing a spiritual death in order to be reborn in Christ's image. His head is thrown backward and one eyelid half-opens. The only wound we can clearly see is the stab to the heart, drawing our attention to the love that united Francis with the Savior.

One wonders if Francis is a self-portrait. Contemporaries described Caravaggio as a "large young man, with a thin black beard (and) black eyes with bushy eyebrows."

The saint's strong features contrast with the tender face of the angel who comforts him. The angel is not found in earlier paintings of the stigmatization, but Caravaggio borrowed it from scenes of Christ's prayer at Gethsemane. A bright light from the upper left spotlights the angel's face, the right hand of Francis and finally his face. The sky behind the figures is streaked with the last glow of twilight or perhaps, the first gleam of dawn.

During the 16th century, the Council of Trent urged Catholic artists to provide more accessible devotional images that would affirm Catholic beliefs such as the role of saints as intercessors before God. In response, Caravaggio portrayed the saints as ordinary folks - often as penitent sinners - with ragged garments and dirt under their fingernails.

The Hartford exhibit brings together five works by Caravaggio and another 30 by artists who shared aspects of his style. In its earnest plea for reform that begins with individual conversion, this art from four centuries ago seems right up to date.

Hamerman, who teaches art and catechesis at Christendom Graduate School in Alexandria, can be reached at norahamerman@aol.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2013