Francis, Saint

(c. 1181-1226)
   Saint Francis was the son of a wealthy silk merchant from Assisi. Two visions persuaded him to renounce his wealth and to devote himself to the care of the ill and the needy. For this, his father disowned him. St. Francis soon developed a large following, resulting in the founding of the Franciscan Order. In 1209, the order received the approval of Pope Innocent III and, in 1219, St. Francis went to Egypt to convert Mohammedans to Christianity. There he met Sultan Malek al-Kamil but failed to effect his conversion. In 1223, St. Francis built a crèche at Grecchia, establishing a custom still carried out today at Christmas time. In 1224, while praying in Mount Alverna, the crucified Christ appeared to him and he received the stigmata (the wounds of Christ). St. Francis died in 1226 in Assisi and was canonized two years later.
   The impact of St. Francis on religious life was huge, as was his influence on art. While most monks of his era lived in seclusion, he and his followers went out into the streets and preached love and compassion for the downtrodden. As a result, subjects in art changed from scenes of damnation to the infancy of Christ and the affection he and his mother, the Virgin, felt for one another. The frescoes in the Arena Chapel (1305) by Giotto and the scenes in Duccio's Maestà Altarpiece (1308-1311; Siena, Museo dell' Opera del Duomo) exemplify this shift. The story of St. Francis was recorded by St. Bonaventure in the Legenda Maior. Considered the official text on the saint's life, the Legenda became the source for artists in the representation of the saint. The frescoes in the Lower Church of San Francesco in Assisi, attributed to Giotto, assiduously follow Bonaventure's text to instruct the faithful on the cult of the recently canonized saint. Giotto again used the text when depicting the life of St. Francis in the Bardi Chapel at Santa Croce, Florence, as did Domenico del Ghirlandaio when he painted the frescoes in the Sassetti Chapel in the Florentine Church of Santa Trinità.

Historical dictionary of Renaissance art. . 2008.

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