Saint Francis of Assisi review – a saint for all seasons

Saint Francis and the Poor Knight, and Francis's Vision, 1437-44 by Sassetta.
‘Renaissance Francis, struggling out of his costly coat to press it on a poor man’: Saint Francis and the Poor Knight, and Francis’s Vision, 1437-44 by Sassetta. © The National Gallery, London

Saint Francis of Assisi review – a saint for all seasons

National Gallery, London
Cheerful, selfless Saint Francis is forcefully present in this enthralling show of art and imagery from the Renaissance to the present inspired by the muse, mystic and social radical

Lark song, white butterflies, moonrise, foals: this is what the artist Richard Long saw on his pilgrimage through Umbria in the footsteps of Saint Francis. His shining phrases radiate across the gallery wall in the shape of the glowing sun Francis saw as his sister. They record not only eight days of seeing through the saint’s eyes, but the character of the man himself: his love of starry nights, of watching the Earth turn, loving his fellow beings, feeling the breeze shiver through Italian trees. It is the perfect start to this show.

And Francis is the perfect saint, for art as for his fellow beings. Born filthy rich in Assisi c 1181, he gives it all up to look after others. He talks to the animals, loves sparrows, wolves and people with leprosy, writes paeans to Brother Moon and Sister Sun, restores churches (and quite possibly the church itself) while roving Italy as an itinerant preacher. He travels all the way to Egypt to meet a sultan, and more than once to visit the pope; both are charmed and he is permitted to found a new order.

Francis is also a saint for all seasons: a pioneer for Renaissance artists, a mystic for baroque visionaries, a muse for the Romantics, a social radical for our times. He stands for peace, hope and love, for equality, hugging and ecology. The present pope took his name. He is such an inspiration to artists (he himself contemplated God through art) as to be almost a recurrent protagonist in the National Gallery’s own collection, and more images have arrived from abroad to tell the life, and imagine the man, in this enthralling and magnificent show.

Here is a Renaissance Francis, struggling out of his costly coat to press it on a poor man. Here is Brother Francis, in trademark brown habit and tonsure, opening his arms wide to a 19th-century sunrise over the mountains. Cuddlesome old Francis, his habit now a dressing gown with matching slippers, appears surrounded by Aylesbury ducks in Stanley Spencer’s Berkshire back yard.

Francis is so human – no miracles, cheerful friendships – and yet surpassingly strange. One of the most unexpected works here is an illuminated manuscript by a monk in St Albans around 1240 (less than two decades after the saint’s death) in which Francis appears talking to a crane, a heron, a hawk and two songbirds: an almost comically attentive audience.

His warmth is everywhere apparent. It is in his loving face, looking down on the newborn Christ in Josefa de Óbidos’s nativity (the 17th-century Spanish-born Portuguese painter is a new name to me). It is in the enveloping embrace he extends to the crucified Christ in a colossal Murillo, and in modest prints of the poor by Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco. It’s in scenes of the saint’s encounters with popes and sultans.

Saint Francis Before the Sultan by Fra Angelico, 1429.
Saint Francis Before the Sultan by Fra Angelico, 1429. Lindenau-Museum Altenburg, Germany/ Bernd Sinterhauf

One of the greatest works here is also the smallest: a tiny Fra Angelico in which the garrulously open-hearted Francis, who has gone all the way to Egypt in hope of converting the sultan al-Kamil, is receiving a sympathetic hearing. Has there ever been a better painting of a sceptical, if gracious, audience?

The mind of the man comes forth most particularly in mystical baroque art. El Greco shows Francis receiving the stigmata from clouds that shiver upwards like ectoplasm. He is standing on a mountain top yet towers upwards like a peak in his own right, the seraphic angel sending down the divine signs nothing but pure reverberating light. Whereas Francisco de Zurbarán’s saint is a solitary hooded figure on his knees in utter darkness. A vision of pictorial austerity, with its mysterious black light, the painting draws you close to the face, only to discover that the eyes are invisible within the cowl. Francis is forcefully present, the size of life, and yet his mind is entirely elsewhere.

Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata by El Greco, 1590-95.
El Greco’s Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata, 1590-95. National Gallery of Ireland

Most remarkable of all, perhaps, is the Caravaggio on loan from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Connecticut, showing the saint receiving the stigmata at the mountain shrine of La Verna in Arezzo. Francis falls back into the arms of an angel, eyes open yet sightless with astonishment. Moonwrack shoots across the night sky and in the darkness his followers sleep, missing the moment altogether.

And this is one of the show’s marvellous achievements. In directing your eye to all these images of a single man, and his life, it alters your perceptions of both the man and the painters. Francis struggling with his coat is the first of a narrative sequence by the 15th-century Sienese artist Sassetta, all displayed in a central gallery to which you return. Sassetta’s humorous expressiveness astounds. Here is Francis’s furious silk merchant father, disgusted to see these expensive clothes rejected, and his son’s “Sorry, Dad” face. Here are the crimson-clad cardinals in Rome, rolling their eyes and sighing as the sackcloth Francis shows up to receive nothing less than a blessing and even the permission of the pope to start a whole new order.

Caravaggio’s Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy, c1595.
Caravaggio’s ‘remarkable’ Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy, c1595. © Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

Nothing brings you quite so close to Francis as this show. It has his beautifully simple letters, his songs, hymns and prayers in manuscript copies, even his own drawing, in which a cross rises out of a head with a bristly Desperate Dan chin. It has his bell and his books, and even, at the very end, a faded brown habit with a discoloured rope that Francis is believed to have worn.

And right beside these is one of the Umbrian artist Alberto Burri’s celebrated Sacchi (sacks), from 1953, a canvas stitched out of patches of rough sacking with occasional holes, one of which is here filled with blood-red paint. Irresistibly recalling the nail holes Francis received as stigmata, it also evokes the sackcloth habit in its nearby reliquary and the darned cloth depicted in so many paintings, right back to the poor man’s rags by Sassetta.

The saint’s Marvel moment in Francis, Brother of the Universe, 1980. © Disney. All rights reserved
The saint’s Marvel moment, 1980. © Disney. All rights reserved

And so it goes with this show. It feels mobile, animate, a living exhibition. You see Zurbarán’s Francis again at the end, the cowl now falling back as he talks intensively to God. You see Renaissance stigmata coming down from heaven reprised as blood-red lasers in a fabulous Marvel comic. There are film clips from Franco Zeffirelli, Federico Fellini, Pier Paolo Pasolini. The verdant living wall outside speaks to the art within; the beauty and profundity of it all so superbly presented by the National Gallery’s own director, Gabriele Finaldi, curating with his colleague Joost Joustra.

I can think of no other show that has been blessed by the pope. And this one deserves it, from first to last. It follows Francis of Assisi in spirit too – being open, for free, to all.

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