Saint Francis of Assisi at the National Gallery review – a remarkable exhibition about a remarkable man

·4-min read
Saint Francis in Meditation, 1635-9, by Francisco de Zurbarán (National Gallery)
Saint Francis in Meditation, 1635-9, by Francisco de Zurbarán (National Gallery)

Towards the end of this exhibition there’s an oddity: a gold frame enclosing a scrap of unprepossessing brown cloth with a knotted rope. It could be a modern piece using fabric and hemp like Alberto Burro’s Sack, 1953, nearby. Except it’s the actual habit of St Francis of Assisi from the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence. It’s not every exhibition that has a relic of a saint.

Actually, this has two. Nearby there’s a frame enclosing an ivory horn on a chain; it looks like one of those 17th century tromp l’oeil paintings that seems to be the thing it depicts. This one really is a horn, given to Francis by Sultan al Malik al-Kamil of Egypt. This came about after Francis sought the sultan out when he accompanied a crusade, an encounter depicted in a painting by Fra Angelico nearby, showing Francis offering to walk through fire as the Sultan looks impassively on. These things bring Francis vividly into the show, almost in person.

It’s a remarkable exhibition; quite small, but with a striking variety of pieces from just after the saint’s death – images of a small figure with slightly sticky-out ears – right up to the enormous land art by Richard Long on the wall as you enter, commissioned for the exhibition.

The horn with rods is thought to have been a gift to Francis from Sultan al-Kamil (Photographic archive of the Sacred Convent of S. Francesco in Assisi, Italy)
The horn with rods is thought to have been a gift to Francis from Sultan al-Kamil (Photographic archive of the Sacred Convent of S. Francesco in Assisi, Italy)

This work, A Walk for St Francis, has circles of lines of text arranged like radial lines in a tree trunk. It records his sensory impressions during a week spent on Mount Subasio above Assisi: Larksong, Distant Bells, The Quiet of the Night and so on. It’s accompanied by his River Avon Mud Crescent, made with river mud. The work represents Francis tangentially, because he and his friars walked everywhere, and he too spent time on that mountain, in a hermitage by a deep gorge.

Nearby is Antony Gormley’s representation of Francis, the simplest possible image of a man: plaster covered with lead panels that create a cross running down the figure. The arms are outstretched; look closely and you see they’re pierced, like Francis’s stigmata.

Then there’s the most striking image of the show: Francisco de Zurburán’s dramatic Saint Francis in Meditation, showing him clasping a skull and looking up, his face shrouded by his hood.

Francis of Assisi somehow gets to parts institutional religion rarely reaches. The image of him preaching to the birds and doing a deal with the Wolf of Gubbio is universally accessible; his Canticle of the Sun could be a hymn for ecology; as for anti-consumerism, you don’t get more anti-materialistic than the man who wore that tattered sackcloth. Actually, there’s a lovely picture of his allegorical marriage to Lady Poverty by the Sienese artist Vecchietta, showing Poverty in rags, but with a halo.

Untitled (for Francis) by Antony Gormley (Tate / Tate Images)
Untitled (for Francis) by Antony Gormley (Tate / Tate Images)

Francis has had a remarkable appeal for artists over time, starting from the two images of him made after his death, one reputedly painted on the wood his dead body lay on. The room called The Mystical Francis has a beautiful Murillo, showing the crucified Christ reaching down to Francis; a tender early Caravaggio, theatrically lit, with an angel supporting a recumbent Francis; and a striking, flame-like El Greco of Francis with a skull – the bright clouds echo the holes of the bones. The Gallery’s own collection yields treasures too, like a lovely Botticelli showing a beardless Francis in sombre habit framed by colourful angels piping and strumming.

There are striking modern pieces – the most remarkable is Giuseppe Penone’s Door Tree -Cedar, made of a cedar trunk with a rectangle cut from the centre, showing another tree within. It casts a lovely shadow. It’s echoed by a 17th century etching of another hollow tree, with the Virgin and Child above it, illustrating a miracle story.

It’s quite a masculine story until you come to the section on Clare of Assisi, the young noblewoman who ran away from home to join Francis, and set up an order (known as The Poor Clares) to live out the Franciscan life in seclusion. The Portuguese artist Josefa de Obiso (her godfather was Velasquez’ first teacher) shows Clare and Francis adoring the Christ Child, their faces lit from the manger.

Fittingly, this excellent show is free... it would have been odd to have to pay to see St Francis.

National Gallery to July 30,