St. Francis of Assisi – Why is he important when we’re looking at art?

Why is St. Francis of Assisi important when studying Art History?

St Francis, a friar that lived between c.1182 and 1226, changed the way people responded to the Christian message.

He brought the stories of the Bible to the Italian masses in a radical and original manner – through preaching, drama, acting and storytelling. He communicated biblical events in a way that was, for the first time, accessible. His Christ and Mary weren’t presented as divine deities. They weren’t otherworldly and unreachable. Instead they were presented as real people. Moved by the same emotions. Blood and flesh, just like them. And just like us.

St. Francis also encouraged pathos in his teachings. This had a profound effect on art. Artists responded by painting increasingly realistic scenes of Jesus’ vulnerability – at birth and at death. Older paintings that stressed the awe and power of Christ were replaced by Nativities and Crucifixions.

Look at how St. Francis affected images of Christ’s death:

The first painting is an Italian crucifix thought to be from around 1180-1200. Pre-St. Francis. It’s a type of crucifix called the ‘Christ Triumphant’. This is a Christ that is powerful, strong and in control. A divine, awesome Christ.

The second image is a crucifix by the Early Renaissance artist Cimabue. It’s later, from 1288 and was commissioned by Franciscans for the church of Santa Croce in Florence. Here is a ‘Christ Suffering’. His body is heavy, slumping under its weight. His bloody wounds are prominently displayed. This is an image that is designed to move the spectator. We are compelled to feel compassion and empathy for the suffering man before us.

Cimabue was just one of many artists that responded to the ideas presented by St. Francis of Assisi.

St. Francis and his followers, the Franciscans, were one of the key reasons that a drive towards more realistic and human scenes occurred. This search for realism was one of the key features of the period we call the ‘Renaissance’.

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