For at least a century, Francis of Assisi has been the most popular saint in the world, Catholic or not. This we can measure by how many poems, articles, exhibits, conferences, songs, and books are created to celebrate him every year — but the number is beyond measure.
An artist himself, Francis has inspired artists since before his death in 1226. (Yes, the 800th anniversary of his death is coming soon, and commemorating it will be a world event.)
In a major exhibit at the National Gallery in London, which ends this month, important and interesting art (not just paintings) were gathered, and from that exhibit, this book was created. Many illustrated books about the life and legacy of Francis of Assisi over the decades come highly recommended, but this is surely the most comprehensive, universal, and informative yet.
Francis biographer Audre Vauchez writes an excellent survey of “Francis through the Ages,” exploring how our understanding of the saint has evolved from century to century. And the book’s editors, who are the director of the National Gallery and its associate curator in art and religion, offer essays explaining major themes from Francis’s life and why they have inspired artists so often.
The catalog of works is organized in six groupings: Francis himself; the beginnings of Franciscanism; mystical themes; the natural world, Saint Clare of Assisi (the first woman to join Francis’s religious movement); and radicalism in Francis’s commitments.
Some of the most interesting art works here are recent ones that illuminate aspects of Francis, such as Italian Alberto Burri’s work called Sacco (Sack), from 1953: a mixed media composition of sackcloth and oil on canvases, evoking both the rough, torn, bloody clothing worn by Francis and the artist’s experiences in war.
There is also Australian artist Arthur Boyd’s series of lithographs from 1965, Scenes from the Life of Saint Francis. The name is ordinary enough, but the series includes scenes rarely imagined by an artist, and never so vividly and powerfully. Accompanying this review is one of these: “Saint Francis being beaten by his father.”
All the works displayed beautifully in this book serve to demonstrate clearly what the book's editors, who also painstakingly curated the exhibit in London, contend: that “Far from being complete, the story of the image of Francis is still unfolding.”