Saint Francis in the Desert by Giovanni Bellini

St Francis by Giovanni Bellini (1480)

After yesterday’s rather sad and depressing painting I thought I would try and raise my spirits (and yours) with a picture which has uplifted the spirits of many who have seen it at the Frick Collection in New York. It is Giovanni Bellini’s composition which used to be entitled Saint Francis in Ecstasy, but is now known as Saint Francis in the Desert.  It is an extremely beautiful and powerful work of art which the Venetian master painted in 1480. It is a painting full of detail some of which is easily missed if one only gives it a cursory glance. The gallery itself has no doubt about its worth, stating that it is “the finest work in The Frick Collection and the greatest Renaissance painting in America and also one of the best preserved”. True praise indeed !

This is my type of painting. It is an oil on tempera on poplar panel painting. I love and I am often mesmerised by paintings which are highly detailed and in which the artist has painstakingly spent a good deal of time in presenting us with such an extraordinary level of detail. For me, there is no comparison to be had between a watercolour picture, as beautiful as it may be, in which details are merged and lost in a haze of colour, and an oil painting with its precise detail of every bit of minutiae within the work of art.

Stigmata on St Francis's hand (note rabbit appearing from hole in the wall !!)

There is a spiritual force to this painting, which I am sure moves even those non-believers. The story behind, and the setting for the painting is Saint Francis of Assisi, whilst in retreat, praying and fasting in preparation for Michelmas, received the stigmata, the wounds of Christ’s Crucifixion. This is said to have taken place in 1224 during a retreat at a hut, which was given to Saint Francis by Count Orlando of Chiusi as a place to meditate. It was situated high in the Tuscan hills, above the Apennine forest on Mount Alverna.
Saint Francis, slightly right of centre in the painting, stands, leaning back slightly with his arm outstretched. He is looking transfixed heavenwards at the transcendental light, which emanates from the upper left of the picture. If one looks closely at the figure of St Francis one can just make out the mark of stigmata on the palms of his hands. This miraculous happening is shown as a shadow both illuminates the rocky entrance of St Francis’s dwelling and casts a dark shadow behind the saint and onto the espaliered limbs of the small trees, which act as a screen to the entrance of his dwelling. Look also at the laurel tree at the left of the picture. The laurel, with the fact that its leaves never wilt and preserves its green foliage, makes it symbolic of eternity. In this painting, see how the light illuminates the leaves. It is almost as if it is under a spotlight. Look how it trembles and bends as if being buffeted by strong gusts of wind as it leans into the picture.

Donkey and Crane

Let us look in more detail at the picture. Cast your eyes at the bottom left corner of the painting. One can just see, caught in the branches of a bush, a scrap of paper, on which is written the artist’s signature “IOANNES BELLINUS”. Behind Saint Francis, on the small reading table is a bible and skull, the latter represents death and the transitory nature of life on earth. One can also see a length of cord on the espalier which could have been used as a “bell-pull” by visitors to the retreat. In the field one sees a solitary donkey, standing motionless, and a crane. Further back, below the cliffs and on the outskirts of the city, we see a herdsman with his animals, unaffected by this transcendental happening.

Table with skull and bible with sandals underneath

The water we can see trickling from a spout in the stones is often compared to the miraculous fountain Moses brought forth from the rocks of Mount Horeb to quench the thirst of the Israelites. Another connection with Moses are the abandoned sandals of the saint seen lying under the desk. Bellini may have painted the scene with the bare-footed Saint Francis thus, as a direct connection to the story of Moses on Mount Herob when God spoke to him, saying, “put off the shoes from thy feet for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground
Put all these things together and it is no wonder that people tell you that this painting has such magical appeal and once seen will remain in your memory for a long time. If you live in or are lucky enough to visit New York, pay a visit to The Frick Collection which is much smaller than its nearby neighbour the Metropolitan Museum of Art but offers you a wide range of masterpieces of the art world. Go to today’s painting, stand in front of it, look at all the wonderful detail and absorb the beauty of this breathtaking work of art.