Giovanni Bellini, St Francis in the Desert, c. 1476-78, Frick Collection, New York.
The sun is still shining outside my window, as it is in this fabulous painting. It captures that wonderful sense of release you get when you’ve been cooped up inside all day, and finally step out into the fresh air, take a deep breath, and enjoy the world around you. This is how I feel each day as I head out for my daily walk, especially when the sky is blue, and particularly now that the traffic has dropped and the air is wonderfully clear. St Francis has stepped barefoot into the light, holds his arms out as if to embrace it fully, and looks up to the sky.
He is not so very far away from civilisation: there is a walled town on the next hill, just on the other side of a river, but he is in a deserted place. On retreat from the world, he has constructed a study from the trunks of three types of tree – the colour of each is different – and a vine, which meanders upwards and forms a canopy of leaves over the top. A plank of wood projects from a low garden wall as a seat, and a lectern has been constructed with minimum care for joinery: a few 2x2s nailed together at right angles. On the desk is a book, and a skull. Like any scholar of his day, St Francis meditates on death. But here, now, he is glorying in life.
There are signs of life throughout the painting. His raised garden bed grows medicinal plants. Behind the bench you can see iris leaves, and then the tall, pointed Great Mullein – or Aaron’s Rod (Verbascum thapsus – thanks, as ever, to the Ecologist) among others. There is also a fig tree starting to grow in the foreground, and plantains are taking root in the bare earth.
In the middle distance you can see a donkey, and a grey heron, ever vigilant. Just beyond them is a shepherd – the only other human in the painting – leading his flock just this side of the river. And most charming of all, underneath Francis’s right hand – a small rabbit, poking its head out of the burrow.
You can see the stigmata in Francis’s palms. It was said that, as a result of his special devotion to the Crucified Christ, one day he returned from his private devotions with an image of the cross – not painted on panel, or carved in wood, but in his own body. This is part of the account of the event given by St Bonaventure:
‘…as he was praying in a secret and solitary place on the mountain, Saint Francis beheld a seraph with six wings all afire, descending to him from the heights of heaven. As the seraph flew with great swiftness towards the man of God, there appeared amid the wings the form of one crucified, with his hands and feet stretched out and fixed to the cross. Two wings rose above the head, two were stretched forth in flight, and two veiled the whole body…
The vision, disappearing, left behind it a marvellous fire in the heart of Saint Francis, and no less wonderful token impressed on his flesh. For there began immediately to appear in his hands and in his feet something like nails as he had just seen them in the vision of the Crucified…. On the right side, as if it had been pierced by a lance, was the mark of a red wound, from which blood often flowed and stained his tunic.’
One interpretation of this painting is that it represents the Stigmatisation of St Francis – but as it is so completely different to every other depiction of the story, it can’t be that simple. In every other painted version St Francis is kneeling, one of his followers, Brother Leo, is present, and the seraph can be seen in the sky. Admittedly, this panel has been cut down, so there might once have been a seraph, which got lost in the process. However, to make the narrative clearer, beams of light usually stretch between the protagonists, and even if the seraph had gone, the beams would still be visible. Not only that, but there is no stigma on Francis’s one visible foot, and no wound in his chest.
St Francis founded the Order of Friars Minor, a group of mendicants who, it was intended, would live outside of towns and rely on the charity of others (I mentioned the other main mendicant order, the Dominicans, in #POTD 24). Following Christ’s exhortation to the Apostles not to worry about clothes or shoes, Francis wanted his followers to be similarly unconcerned about appearances, and to dress with utmost simplicity – effectively in sackcloth with a rope belt. The three knots you can see in the end of the rope stand for the three chief virtues of the order – chastity, poverty and obedience. And there are no shoes – although he does have some simple sandals which he has left under the desk.
He also has a piece of paper tucked into his belt. There is no way of knowing what this is, but it could easily be one of his own writings. One of the most famous texts is the Canticle of the Sun – also known as the Canticle of the Creatures. Here are two short excerpts:
Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendour!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains us and governs us and who produces
varied fruits with coloured flowers and herbs.
A second interpretation of the painting is that it is an illustration of this canticle – Francis has his mouth open, after all, and could easily be singing. He is also clearly enjoying the light of Brother Sun, while surrounded by ‘coloured flowers and herbs’. However, if Bellini had wanted the canticle to be the main subject of the painting, he would surely have included far more of the ‘creatures’ Francis wrote about: many are missing.
Yet another interpretation comes from the way that the Franciscans themselves saw their spiritual leader. As a result of his stigmatisation, and given that he had sought to follow Christ’s teaching, initially taking a group of 12 followers, he was given the title ‘Alter Christus’ – another Christ. But Jesus himself, as the leader of the disciples, was associated with Moses, the leader of the Jews. It followed on that Francis was also associated with Moses. And here we see him in the desert – just as Moses had taken the tribes of Israel through the desert – and, as God told Moses, he has constructed himself a tabernacle out of the branches and boughs of trees. Francis did live with the other members of the order, but would regularly go on private retreats. It was on one of these, on Mount La Verna in the Apennines, that he saw the Seraph, in much the same way that Moses saw God in a burning bush on Mount Horeb. Moses realised he was on holy ground, and took off his shoes – and Francis has done the same. But there is no Seraph here – is this interpretation really relevant to this painting?
No Seraph, no – but there is tree in the top left-hand corner which almost seems to be bending towards Francis, its fresh, Spring leaves almost supernaturally illuminated. Could this be Francis’s version of the burning bush? He opens his body towards the tree – although his eye line is directly upwards, towards Heaven.
The waterspout that you can see in the bottom left is another possible connection. At one point, in the wilderness, the tribes of Israel had no water. God told Moses to strike a rock with his staff, and when he did, water gushed forth. Directly below the spout there is a kingfisher, although you might be able to see it because it is so dark. And further down, to the right, you can see Bellini’s signature, painted on a trompe l’oeil strip of paper that looks as if it has been attached to the branches of a barren tree.
If Moses had a staff, so does St Francis, in the form of a walking stick, which he has left behind in the study. There are many stories told about this remarkable man. In one of them, his love for all God’s creatures led him to admire a tree – which bent over to greet him. That seems to be happening here. And in another, he struck his walking stick on the ground, and it took root and grew there. For many years, the resulting tree marked the spot. The stump of that tree still exists, apparently, although the Franciscans who will show it to you are fully aware that this is ‘just a legend’. They live on the Island of San Francesco del Deserto in the Venetian lagoon, where St Francis is supposed to have stopped off on his way back from visiting the Sultan of Egypt. The church on the island is, in all probability, the location for which this complex image was painted.
When interpreting art, we tend to ask the question, ‘what does it mean?’ and often there isn’t one, simple answer. Bellini would have taken advice from the patron, and from the Franciscans on the island – he might have had many ideas in mind. When the church was rebuilt in the second half of the 15th Century it was called ‘San Francesco delle Stimmate’ – so the stigmatisation must be part of the meaning. The saint’s joy in creation, as made clear in the Canticle of the Sun, is another. And so are the parallels between the saint and Moses in the wilderness. Bellini is clearly not representing the setting of the actual church: this is not an island in the Venetian lagoon. Having said that, the rocky outcrop on which Francis stands is like an island, surrounded by a sea of green grass. If anything, his retreat looks more like Mount La Verna, even if the walled town is the sort you’d seen in the Veneto – where Bellini was painting – rather than in Umbria, where St Francis settled.
All of the possible interpretations of this painting are worth thinking about. Bellini may well have been hinting at them all, attempting a poetic evocation of the many rich threads that are woven through Francis’s life. I suspect there is yet one more way of thinking about it, though. This does overlap with the others. It comes from the name of the island: San Francesco del Deserto. Not ‘St Francis in the Desert’, like the name of the painting, but ‘St Francis of the Desert’. He is part of it, part of the desert, and is depicted in the middle of it. It is around him and in him. He is part of creation. And like St Francis back then, we are socially distanced now. We might even be self isolating. But we are not on our own, however lonely it might be at times: we are still part of a whole – part of the main, as John Donne said. No man is an island.