The Story of St. Francis

by Lucia Corrain

It was common for artists in the Middle Ages to paint a series of panels representing progressive scenes in a story. A famous cycle of frescos of this kind, depicting the life of St. Francis, adorns the walls of the Upper Church of St. Francis at Assisi. The cycle consists of twenty-eight panels around the lower part of the walls of the nave and entrance. They are arranged three to each window bay, with the exception of the first bay from the main door, which contains four panels. In the entrance, there is one scene on the wall on either side of the main door. Each panel representing an individual episode is framed by painted cornices and by painted barley-sugar columns left and right. The succession of events shown in the fresco cycle follows the story of the saint as set out in St. Bonaventure's Greater Life of St Francis, written between 1260 and1263. Giotto worked on the fresco cycle between 1290and 1296. It is unlikely that he worked on his own, as the frescos vary in quality and some of the painting is not of the highest standard. It seems very likely that Giotto was responsible for the overall design and for the preparatory drawings, with a large team of helpers involved in the actual painting.

The Frescoes

1. THE HOMAGE OF A SIMPLE MAN
2. FRANCIS AND THE POOR KNIGHT
3. THE DREAM OF THE PALACE
4. THE MIRACLE OF THE CRUCIFIX
5. FRANCIS RENOUNCES HIS EARTHLY POSSESSIONS
6. THE DREAM OF INNOCENT III
7. CONFIRMTION OF THE RULE
8. THE VISION OF THE FLAMING CHARIOT
9. THE VISION OF THE THRONES
10. THE EXPULSION OF THE DEMONS FROM AREZZO
11. TRIAL BY FIRE BEFORE THE SULTAN
12. THE ECSTASY OF ST FRANCIS
13. THE INSTITUTION OF THE CRIB AT GRECCIO
14. THE MIRACLE OF THE SPRING
15. FRANCIS PREACHES TO THE BIRDS
16. THE DEATH OF THE KNIGHT OF CELANO
17. FRANCIS PREACHES BEFORE HONORIUS III
18. THE APPARITION AT ARLES
19. FRANCIS RECEIVES THE STIGMATA
20. THE DEATH OF ST FRANCIS
21. THE APPARITION TO FRA AGOSTINO
22. VERIFICATION OF THE STIGMATA
23. THE LAMENT OF THE POOR CLARES
24. THE CANONIZATION OF ST FRANCIS
25. THE DREAM OF POPE GREGORY IX
26. FRANCIS HEALS THE MAN OF URIDA
27. THE CONFESSION OF THE WOMAN OF BENEVENTO
28. THE LIBERATION OF PETER THE HERETIC

It is easy to see that, as well as being part of a series, each of the panels in the St. Francis cycle pictures a single event in the life of the saint and is complete in itself. Francis appears in twenty-six of the twenty-eight panels (that is, all except numbers 21 and 24). He is shown in profile or full face, standing, kneeling or lying down, alive or dead, on earth or in heaven. He can be recognized by the halo, which indicates his holiness, and, apart from in the scenes of his early life, by his brown habit. Giotto followed the official biography of St Francis, written by St Bonaventure, very closely indeed. Because the Church was not entirely happy about the "holy poverty" preached by Francis, the biography - and therefore the fresco cycle- put more stress on Francis's miracle-working powers and on his close relationship with the popes.

Lucia Corrain, Giotto and Medieval Art: the Lives and Works of the Medieval Artists
1995 Peter Bedrick Books, NY

To see a related article, visit The Art of Giotto: The Saint Francis Legend


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