Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Where there is error?


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.

13 comments:

Dave said...

I trust you weren't expecting serious answers though.

My exepctation is that, like the halo, that is the conventional way of imagining the stigmata (perhaps from John 20: 27 [mind you, I haven't checked the Greek, perhaps it says wrists, rather than hands]).

Christopher said...

Now this is interesting. In John 20, 27 Jesus uses χειρά(ς) (cheira(s) = hand(s) when speaking to Thomas, but two verses earlier Thomas uses χερσιν (chersin) for 'hands' when he says Έάν μή ιδω ένς τάις χερσιν αυτου τον τυπον των πλων - if I may not see in the (chersin) the mark of the nails...

All depends on what exactly 'chersin' means and I have no dictionary of classical Greek. If chersis (Nom. sing.) means 'wrist', then my point might have some validity, but I don't expect it does.

Sarah said...

Bugger.. this reminds me I wanted to go to see the exhibition 'The sacred made real' at the National Gallery.....only a few days left...sorry gotta rush.

I, Like The View said...

I was going to suggest what Dave said, something along the lines of convention

I was going to suggest that which Dave said. . .

I thought the same as Dave wrote. . .

you've scared me, Christopher, and now I can't think/write/type properly

Rog said...

I was about to make an erudite observation but Sarah blaspheming has put me off.

I'll merely point out that it was a happy outcome that Stigmata's little boy went on to drive for Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear.

An the distorted Maggiethatch quote in your title has a simple answer. "Over the Oirish Sea".


Pip Pip!

I, Like The View said...

(I did already know the fact about wrists, not hands, but in my muddle forgot to mention it)(it is a fact, or a supposition?)(nails going thru hands not being strong enough, thus nails thru wrists being the method)(that fact)

Christopher said...

Sarah: You're so lucky! Green with envy here. Nice photo - reminds me of Jane Merrow.

I: Why, you've gone all to pieces! I think you need a chunk or two of F&N and a strong arabica.

Rog: I remember Mrs T. on the steps of No. 10 in 1978 quoting from the prayer of St Francis but having to look down at the words concealed in her hand, like an actor who couldn't master his lines. That tiny gesture gave the game away...

I, Like The View said...

Kraft F&N just doesn't have the same ring to it. . .

Christopher said...

Indeed it does not. I fear the worst.
There may be some panic buying. Zigs and I may have to pool our resources.

Sarah said...

The Avengers?....taken last year when I was a happy bunny :0(

Hope you are better..

Christopher said...

The same. And The Lion in Winter.

Much better, thanks. Hope you'll be able to say the same soon. Can't have unhoppy bunnies happing around.

Vicus Scurra said...

My RSS feeds don't seem to be working properly, consequently I arrive at updates about a day late. However, I still find that I have nothing worthwhile to say, so I don't suppose it matters.
Like St Francis, I am entirely believable. There may be other similarities, but I am too modest to suggest them.

Christopher said...

Vicus, there's always a chair with your name on it by the fireside at Lydian Acres in winter, likewise a lounger by the pool in summer, where you can be as garrulous or as taciturn as the fancy takes you.