Faith through Art: A reflection on the Stigmatization of St. Francis

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By Norman Farmer

The Stigmatization of St. Francis of Assisi (whose feast day we celebrate Oct. 4) with the wounds of Christ, which took place in the dark morning hours of Holy Cross Day (Sept. 14) in 1224, ranks high among the most beloved saints’ stories. In 1263 Bonaventure of Bagnoreggio (then minister general of the Order of Preachers) included the episode in his life of St. Francis known as the “Legenda major” (with “legenda,” in Latin, meaning a text intended for reading aloud in ecclesiastical settings). Subsequently, he wrote his meditative masterpiece, “The Soul’s Journey into God,” under the inspiration of Francis’ vision of the six-winged seraph. 
The stigmatization appeared with growing frequency in Franciscan art, including this imposing 10 foot by 5 foot altarpiece painted by Giotto di Bondone in 1300 for San Francesco Church in Pisa, Italy. The masterpiece is now at the Louvre where it was taken as war booty by Napoleon’s soldiers in 1813, the greatest artist of early modern times joins with the “second founder” of the Order of Preachers, the leading mystical contemplative and theologian of his time (and subsequently a saint himself) to contemplate the mysteries of this supremely transformational event in the life of the “little poor man” of Assisi.  
Together, the philosopher/theologian and the discerning artist who took him for his guide to all of the details of Francis’ stigmatization, take us back and forth across the border between sensible and spiritual realities as we shift between concrete signs pointing to things and the fullness of prophetic wisdom that embraces all things (1Cor 1:22-3). As Ignatius of Loyola would teach centuries later in his Exercises, Bonaventure and Giotto invite us to “use our senses,” especially “the vision of the imagination,” and to attune ourselves to the affective atmosphere surrounding the stigmatization: looking, being present on that hillside, and entering knowingly into the fullness and bodily pain of that transformational encounter. The rocky precipices of Mt. LaVerna from which Francis’ own desire to be one with Christ soared heavenward are signs of the rocky terrain of our own self-willed hearts as we too yearn for ways to identify with Francis’ vision of the seraph that “leads our mind’s eye to amazement and admiration,” Bonaventure writes in “Soul’s Journey.”
“One morning about the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross while he was praying on the mountainside, Francis saw a seraph with six fiery wings coming down from the highest point in the heavens. The vision descended swiftly and came to rest in the air near him. Then he saw the image of a Man crucified in the midst of the wings, with his hands and feet stretched out and nailed to a cross. Two of the wings were raised above his head and two were stretched out in flight, while the remaining two shielded his body. Francis was dumbfounded at the sight and his heart was flooded with a mixture of joy and sorrow. He was overjoyed at the way Christ regarded him so graciously under the appearance of a Seraph, but the fact that he was nailed to a cross pierced his soul with a sword of compassionate sorrow. 
“As the vision disappeared, it left his heart ablaze with eagerness and impressed upon his body a miraculous likeness ... 
[T]he marks of nails began to appear in his hands and feet, just as he had seen them in his vision of the Man nailed to the Cross … True love of Christ had now transformed his lover into his image, and when the 40 days which he had intended spending in solitude were over ... St. Francis came down from the mountain. With him he bore a representation of Christ crucified which was not the work of an artist in wood or stone, but had been reproduced in the members of his body by the hand of the living God,” Bonaventure wrote as translated by Ewert Cousins in “The Soul’s Journey into God, The Tree of Life, The Life of St. Francis” by Paulist Press. 
The saint and the artist thus draw us into that drama on Mt. LaVerna through our feelings, our senses, and our minds –– through words and sensible images. We join Francis in a direct experience with the literal in breaking of God into human experience and its physical effects. Meanwhile, the three events depicted below –– Pope Innocent III’s dream of Francis holding up the dilapidated church, the pope’s approval of the Franciscan Rule, and Francis’ Sermon preached to the birds –– ground the soaring mystical drama of the stigmata within our own realm of space and time, while Francis’ vision of Christ in the form of a seraph remains a once-and-forever event in the boundless, timeless realm of the divine. Thus does the painter stamp upon our memory an “image of eternity,” as Bonaventure writes in “Soul’s Journey.”

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