Sunday, January 2, 2011

St. Francis in the Desert

This is a two-sheet rubber stamped image created by Russell Manning of Texas.  The piece has lots of intricate detail and is precisely colored with pen and ink. 

What is the significance of a desert in terms of St. Francis of Assisi? 

St. Francis of Assisi is believed to have received the stigmata -- the wounds of Christ's Crucifixion -- in 1224 during a retreat on Mount Alverna in the Apennines. In this portrait below by Giovanni Bellini (c. 1430-1516) called "St. Francis in the Desert" that he painted in 1480, it may be this event that Bellini is trying to convey through the naturalistic yet transcendental imagery of rays of light flooding the foreground from an unseen source at upper left. (Other interpretations have been offered, but this is one.)

The wilderness - or desert - of Mount Alverna is compared in early Franciscan sources to the desert of the Book of Exodus, and Moses and Aaron were seen by the Franciscans as their spiritual ancestors, who were believed to have lived again in their founder. A parallel was seen between the saint's stigmatization on Mount Alverna and Moses communion with God on Mount Horeb.

The quivering tree at upper left, shining in the mysterious light, may then be intended to recall not only the Cross but also the burning bush of Moses vision at Horeb. The landscapeof Bellini's desert is filled with marvelous details -- animals, birds, persons, plants, objects such as the skull and sandals, and strange rock formations -- that yielded hidden meanings for those who understood their importance in Franciscan literature.

The water trickling from a spout in the stones at left, for example, is compared to the miraculous fountain Moses brought forth from the rocks at Horeb, and the empty sandals behind the barefoot saint recall God's command to Moses to "put off the shoes from thy feet: for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground."

It is perhaps this sense of significance in all things as well as the radiant light flowing over the landscape that imbues the painting with such magical appeal.


In another painting, St. Francis is also shown in the desert with a monk. The artist, Joachim Patinir (c.1490-c.1524 Netherlandish), painted this picture in Prado, Madrid.


A final thought that goes back to Russell Manning's pen and ink image at the start of this post:: 
The Canticle of the Sun, also known as the Laudes Creaturarum (Praise of the Creatures), is a religious song composed by St. Francis. It was written in the Umbrian dialect of Italian, but has since been translated into many languages. It is believed to be among the first works of literature, if not the first, written in the Italian language.

The Canticle of the Sun in its praise of God thanks Him for such creations as "Brother Fire" and "Sister Water." It is an affirmation of Francis' personal theology as he often referred to animals as brothers and sisters to Mankind, rejected material accumulation and sensual comforts in favor of "Lady Poverty."

Saint Francis is said to have composed most of the canticle in late 1224 while recovering from an illness at San Damiano, in a small cottage that had been built for him by Saint Clare and other women of her order.

Within the Canticle of the Sun are the following lines:

All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Moon and Stars;
In the heavens you have made them, bright, and precious and fair.