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Enthralling new exhibition opens at the National Gallery, London on life of Saint Francis of Assisi

By Theresa Thompson, Timeless Travels' Art Correspondent

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1571 - 1610, Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy, about 1595-96, Oil on canvas, 94 x 130 cm, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT. The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund, © Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art / photo: Allen Phillips

Distant bells, the Umbrian plain, Cuckoo, Barking Deer, Carrying a Day’s Water, Richard Long’s A Walk for Saint Francis radiates out its verbal imagery in the opening gallery, setting the scene perfectly for a remarkable exhibition on the life and legacy of Saint Francis of Assisi (1182–1226). The piece takes anyone who’s been lucky enough to walk there, straight back to that lush region of Italy.

Long’s artwork, specially commissioned for the exhibition, recalls an eight day long walk he made in the Parco del Monte Subasio that overlooks Assisi in the province of Perugia.

Taking centre stage in the opening room, Antony Gormley’s representation of Francis stands, arms outstretched as if in supplication. Move in closer and you see that the lead panels of the life-sized figure Untitled (for Francis), 1985, form a cross and that holes on it resemble Francis’s stigmata.

Antony Gormley, born 1950, Untitled (for Francis), 1985, Lead, fibreglass and plaster, 190 x 117 x 29 cm

Tate, London. © Antony Gormley / photo: Tate

In the corner of this room, Francisco de Zurbarán’s deeply expressive Saint Francis in Meditation, painted in 1635-9, shows the kneeling monk, face shrouded by his hood, cradling a skull as he prays, his tattered robe the embodiment of the Franciscan ideals of poverty and humility. And then, on the end wall of the next gallery, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s Baroque masterpiece, Saint Francis embracing the Crucified Christ, 1668-9, draws you further into the exhibition.

It’s a brilliant piece of curatorship, a brilliant start to an enthralling exhibition. A show dedicated to a saint whose commitment to the poor, calls for peace, love of nature and openness to dialogue with other religions still powerfully resonate today, says National Gallery Director, Dr Gabriele Finaldi, curator of the exhibition along with his colleague, Dr Joost Joustra, Ahmanson Research Associate Curator in Art and Religion at the National Gallery.

Dr Finaldi believes that “Francis’s spiritual radicalism, his commitment to the poor and human solidarity, his love of God, nature and animals, which we might call embryonic environmentalism, as well as his striving for peace between enemies and openness to dialogue with other religions, are themes that still resonate with us today and make him a figure of enormous relevance to our times.”

The show comprises over 40 artworks, paintings from the Gallery’s collection – by Sassetta, Botticelli, and Zurbarán and so on – and major international loans by Caravaggio, Murillo, and El Greco and the like, plus works by Stanley Spencer, Antony Gormley, Andrea Büttner, Arte Povera artist Giuseppe Penone.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1617 - 1682, Saint Francis embracing the Crucified Christ, 1668-9, Oil on canvas, 291 x 191 cm. © Museo de Bellas Artes de Sevilla

As the patron saint of animals and ecology (he is also the patron saint of Italy, along with St Catherine of Siena), Francis’ engagement with the natural world has in modern times perhaps become his defining feature.

His life and miracles certainly lend themselves to lively image making. It is said that St Francis has more images devoted to him than any historical figure, and art historians have estimated that as many as 20,000 images might have been made just in the century after his death – not including in illuminated manuscripts.

One of most celebrated ‘visual biographies’ of the saint is Sassetta’s brilliant series of panel paintings for the San Sepolcro Altarpiece (1437‒44), seven panels of which belonging to the National Gallery fill the second room.

Sassetta illustrates episodes including Francis’ conversion, a young man born to a rich family in Assisi forsaking a life of ease in order to serve others; his vision foretelling the founding of the Franciscan order; the miraculous stigmatisation; the story of the Wolf of Gubbio, the wolf, once the terror of the villagers, now docile with its paw on the friar’s hand; his visit to Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil in Egypt in 1219 in the time of the Fifth Crusade where he offers to walk through fire to demonstrate the depth of his faith. It was an encounter of mutual respect that led St Francis to be taken as a patron of dialogue between religions.

Fra Angelico, active 1417; died 1455, Saint Francis before the Sultan, 1429, Tempera on panel, 28 x 31 cm

Lindenau Museum, Altenburg © Lindenau-Museum Altenburg, Germany / photo: Bernd Sinterhauf

There are great works in every room of this marvellous exhibition. From medieval painted panels (some predating the earliest paintings in the National Gallery), to manuscripts, to Renaissance paintings seldom seen in the UK (including for example, what might be the earliest of Caravaggio’s surviving religious pictures, Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy, c 1595, on loan from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum, Connecticut, and a lovely Fra Angelico tempera panel scene of the saint before the sultan, from Lindenau-Museum Altenburg, Germany), relic-like objects, film clips from Franco Zeffirelli, Federico Fellini, and Pier Paolo Pasolini, and even a Marvel comic.

Marvellous too, is the fact that this is a free exhibition. True to the spirit of Saint Francis!


St Francis of Assisi

National Gallery, London

Showing until: 30 July 2023

For more information, visit


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