I was really surprised when I first saw this painting of St Francis. Actually it's a fresco, not a particularly prominent one, in the the lower basilica of the great church of Assisi. J. and I went there several years ago, intending to have a look at the Giotto frescoes in the upper basilica, but it was closed for renovation, so we had to make do with the lower.
Chief memories of Assisi are:
The most monstrous pile I've ever seen of Walkers of Strathspey shortbread in one of the souvenir shops
The monstrous irony of Bellamy our golden retriever not being allowed into St Francis' own church
The monstrous array of scaffolding around the upper basilica, each pole painted black and decorated with beautiful gilded finials
And of course this portrait of St Francis. It was painted in about 1270, within living memory of St Francis, by the most shadowy forerunner of the Italian Renaissance, Giovanni di Pepo, better known by his nickname Cimabue, or 'ox-top', maybe because of a curly tuft on the top of his head.
I was struck by it because apart from the obligatory halo and the wounds on his hands and feet St Francis appears as someone entirely believable, an unprepossessing little bloke with a hooked nose, big ears and piercing compassionate eyes that see through pretence and vanity to the weakness beneath. Not that there's doubt about his existence: his life is well documented even if you scrape away the accretions of legend. What damage to credibility later artists caused, oiling and massaging their saints into an impossible, unapproachable and downright unappealing sanctity!
But I think there's a problem with the famous stigmata, the supposed mystical appearance of Jesus' crucifixion wounds on someone of great holiness. Cimabue has painted them in on St Francis' feet and hands. (His habit is also torn to show the wound in his side.) We sometimes forget that crucifixion was as usual a method of execution of criminals in Roman dominions as hanging was in the UK until its abolition in the 1960s. Crucifixion nails were heavy, hand-made builders' nails. To support the body weight on the cross, they were driven in through the wrists and the ankles, crossed one over the other, of the condemned. Nails driven through the palm would have torn through the flesh and ligaments of the hands and the victim would have tumbled forward, still pinned at the ankles. It doesn't bear thinking about.
Why has Cimabue, revolutionary devotee of realism, given St Francis - his real name was Giovanni di Bernadone: the Italian 'Francesco' just means 'frenchified', because he was born in France and affected French manners during his wild youth - why has Cimabue given him stigmata that couldn't have existed in that form? Or should we accept them as a convention, like his halo?
It's quite nice to write a serious post now and again.
Having taken early retirement from teaching in Scotland, I settled in the Languedoc to follow a second career in writing and composition. The latest work to appear, itself a testament to having overcome the distractions of building drystone walls, making music at home with friends and cultivating strawberries, is a biography of the artist Evelyn Dunbar (1906-1960).