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Walters Art Museum unveils St. Francis missal

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“Stewardship” is the watchword St. Francis of Assisi has been known for since he founded his brotherhood in the early 13th century — stewardship of God’s nature and of our fellow human beings. In that spirit of stewardship, the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore has undertaken a two-year restoration of one of the most important relics of St. Francis, the missal that is believed to have inspired his unique commitment to the imitation of Christ.

The missal is on view for the first time in four decades, and open to pages with words of Jesus that inspired Francis. Surrounding the missal, curator Lynley Herbert arranged manuscripts, paintings, ivories and other works honoring the life of Francis and his two closest disciples, Sts. Anthony of Padua and Clare of Assisi. Visitors to the display may take home holy cards honoring these three saints.

St. Francis is not only beloved to Catholics — the poet Dante described him as a great “athlete” who saved the church in the crisis of the 13th century — but revered around the world as a model of humility, kindness, peace-making and protection of nature.

A relic of touch

The book in the Walters collection dates from around 1180. It was dedicated to the church of San Nicolo in Assisi, which puts it in the right place at the right time to have inspired Francis’ decision to renounce worldly goods. 

In 1208, Francis, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, was asked by two friends what he felt God’s plan for them might be. They talked all night and the next morning went to Mass at the nearby church of San Nicolo. After Mass, the young men opened the missal on the altar three times at a random place.

The first choice landed on Mark 10:21, where Christ advises a rich young man:

“Go and sell all that you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven; then come and follow me.” The second fell on Luke 9:3 when Christ admonishes his disciples as they set out to preach and heal: “Take nothing with you for the trip; no walking stick, no beggar’s bag, no food, no money, not even an extra shirt.”

The third took the three men to Matthew 16:24, when Jesus tells Peter: “If anyone wants to come with me, he must forget himself, carry his cross and follow me.”

Responding to these Gospel passages, Francis changed his life to one of service, establishing the Franciscan order, whose friars, with no possessions except their habit, walk from place to place to preach the Gospel. Soon after his death, the church canonized Francis in 1228. 

walters art

Abigail Quandt, left, head of book and paper conservation at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, and Cathie Magee, an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow, were part of a major conservation effort that preserved a 12th century manuscript known as the St. Francis Missal. JOHN DEAN COURTESY WALTERS ART MUSEUM | CNS

The St. Francis missal is considered a hallowed “relic of touch” by Franciscans around the world, and has often inspired pilgrimages to Baltimore. But it has been too fragile for public view for four decades.  Techniques borrowed from sculpture conservation allowed the museum conservators to rebuild the wood of the cover boards riddled with insect holes. The entire book was then taken apart, an unusual step for such a historic object, before the parchment pages were sewn back in with linen thread. The museum has also digitized it for online access.

On display near the missal is an Italian Renaissance portrait of St. Clare, not normally on view, and a magnificently gilded manuscript page with 20 scenes from her life that was made for a nun entering the Order of Poor Clares. A small 16th-century panel depicts St. Anthony when he decided to leave the Augustinian order and become a Franciscan. A poignant life-size painting of St Francis in prayer (c. 1600) is by the workshop of Annibale Carracci. An exquisite ivory statuette of St. Francis comes from the Philippines.

Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum is the ideal place to view beautiful objects from the Christian tradition. Visitors can see the largest collection of Ethiopian Coptic icons in the United States. Rooms with stained-glass windows and stone statues evoke the French Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals. A unique Madonna and Child by Raphael and an Annunciation by a Florentine 15th-century artist still in its original frame with the original smaller scenes across the bottom — a rarity in any museum — are among the treasures of the Italian Renaissance.  

Just outside the St. Francis Missal exhibit are some of the earliest surviving testaments of Christian worship in Syria: a marble altar bearing silver liturgical vessels from the sixth century.

Hamerman writes from Reston.


Find out more

Walters Art Museum in Baltimore is open to the public free of charge Tuesday through Sunday. The St. Francis missal exhibit continues through May 31.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020