Dante, in the Paradiso, places side by side the praises of St. Francis and St. Dominic and demonstrates the tendency, equal in the end, diverse in the method of the one and the other.
Uniting in one hymn the glory of the two greatest saints of the thirteenth century, it is admirable to see how, in a poetic manner, almost symmetrical, he obtains the effect of the powerful contrast which really existed in their characters.
If the Middle Ages were soft and sentimental as they have been depicted and described by a false art, these two saints would either not have existed, — or would not have appeared so wonderful in modern times.
But in those times it was possible for a tyrant such as Ezzelino da Romano to flourish and wreak his vengeance on those who offended him, even on women and children. Law and Right had given place to Force and Arrogance: the poor and the weak lived like slaves, and while Italy was bleeding still from the deep wounds inflicted on her by Frederick Barbarossa, yet, already in many places, men grown up to arms and violence began to issue forth from their houses or to descend from their impregnable castles, like greedy eagles from the nest, to destroy the liberty of the citizens.
On the other hand, in many parts of Latin Europe, specially in Lombardy and in Southern France, where p60better conditions existed, divers sects arose which disputed the pontifical authority. Well known amongst these are the Patarini, Catari,º and Albigesiº — these last are best known owing to their greater culture. Taking advantage of the liberty they enjoyed under Raymond of Toulouse, they rose against the Catholic Church. They held public Councils, their poets derided even while serving the Court of Rome; their missionaries diffused their ardent beliefs in Italy, in Germany and in Flanders. They held that the authority of the Pope in matters spiritual, and also in the discipline and the ceremonies of the Roman Church, was illegitimate and erroneous.
However at this time a man of great intellect became Head of the Church, Innocent III. He recognized how Religion could benefit from the different spirits of St. Francis and of St. Dominic, thus after brief hesitation he both helped them and asked for their aid. In a dream they are shown upholding the Lateran which is falling.
The dream of the falling Lateran:
Thus against boastful ostentation and the violence of the laity, is opposed the gentle and resigned humility of the Poor Brother of Assisi; against the intellectual heresy, specially of the Albigesi, is opposed the unshakable faith of St. Dominic with his powerful preaching. From these facts Dante draws the poetic conception of the marriage of Francis with Poverty, of Dominic with Faith.
St. Dominic had in fact all the positive faculties of his age. In his mission he found useful even the sombre Iberian character and his deep theological erudition. We p61find him indeed teaching Holy Scripture in the same Palencia where he had studied as a youth; then Theology in Rome where he comments on the Epistles of St. Paul. He aids and teaches the higher classes and has more in common with them than with the ignorant and uncultured. He goes to arrange the marriage of Alfonso IX, King of Castile, with the daughter of the Count de la Marche; returning with his Bishop Diego of Azebedo to fetch the princess, they find her on her death bed and can only assist at her funeral.
History clears him from the accusation of having been the founder of the Tribunal of the Inquisition, already thought of at the Council of Verona when Dominic was but fourteen years of age and regularly established only eight years after his death. But his life was a struggle, and Dante speaks of him justly as 'the athlete consecrate, Kind to his own and cruel to his foes'.
His activity is febrile, his oratory formidable. He founds monasteries, gathering in to his Order, Ladies, Cavaliers, Doctors; assists at Councils, defending the title of his Order with Honorius III. He is continually travelling; from Italy he goes to France, then on to Spain preaching everywhere, until he finds himself in that bloody theatre where one of the most terrible human dramas has taken place: the repression, nay, the suppression of the Albigesi. The celebrated cry of the Legate of Rome, 'Kill them all, God will know His own!' is controversial but characteristic. At the beginning of the fight, Dominic p62promises the victory to the Count of Montfort, and during the battle, he prays in the church of Muret, that the massacre may be complete!
Finally, he retires to Bologna where in that populous city he may gather in to his Order those who have gone to that learned centre, both for scientific and theological studies. He himself invites discussion and disdains acts of ingenuous and cringing humility, so much so, that in a fit of irritation, he one day refuses a donation made to his Convent! He wishes to live and fight for the Faith, where the combat is most fierce, where it seems to him that minds are keenest in the search for dogma, and Dante, whose every word clothes a thought, says:
Then with the doctrine and the will together,
With office apostolical he moved,
Like torrent which some lofty vein out-presses;
And in amongst the shoots heretical
His impetus with greater fury smote,
Wherever the resistance was the greatest.
. . . . . . . . . .
St. Francis, on the contrary, is the popular saint, mild and patient, the inspired democratic saint in the exact sense of the word. He does not rebel like St. Dominic against the enemies of the Faith, but would rather conquer them with humility. He offers therefore his left cheek to those who smite the right. He says to his companion, 'I throw myself supine on the ground, put your foot on my throat and the other on my mouth, and thus turn me over three p63times.' With him quantity of faith counts, with St. Dominic the quality; in him feeling, in St. Dominic dogma. Like St. Dominic he is not feared and saluted by crowds, but at first 'is like a madman derided and thrust away with stones and mud, both by relatives and strangers, he in every injury and derision returning patient, and as it were deaf and dumb'. His words do not thunder powerfully, threatening anathema and eternal pain and woe to heretics, his words are not saturated with theological erudition, and are not addressed to the learned. He in the superhuman expansion of his soul addresses himself to the poor, he speaks to the birds, leaves, streams, feeling that the spirit of God is in every place; in him burns the fire of charity which explains every thing and every creature of the Universe.
This all-embracing tenderness towards the smallest creatures and his pity for every suffering being, in an age when most men 'dealt in bloodshed, and in pillaging', could but raise and exalt the oppressed, who saw in St. Francis but a deeper expression of their misery and anguish. He was therefore one of the strongest coöperators in the development and diffusion of that mysticism which in the twelfth century flowed over human iniquity like a beneficial rain upon the arid fields of summer.
For we must remember that St. Francis was not the Saint of the Populace remaining amongst the people to comfort and relieve them. St. Francis knew riches, had lived in ease with his parents, for all know that his father p64was an important cloth merchant, and his mother probably of noble birth, which may explain the fine feelings of the Poor Man.
. . . . . . . . . .
And the disciples who followed him, what abnegation they showed as a tribute to the charity of their master! When the corpse of Sixtus IV was carried into the Church of St. Peter, with only twenty torches, covered with a ragged and dirty pall, no one was willing to remain and pray beside it. The rabble was raging outside in the deserted streets while the body, black, deformed, with a swollen throat, was decomposing. Only an unknown Franciscan watched beside it night and day, suffering its horror and praying for the soul of the dead. Thus on the arrival of Duke Valentino in Forlì he found four Brothers devoutly saying vespers, while all the Canons had fled.
And this does but accentuate the Dantesque contrast between the two saints: — even to the background of the picture; behind and around St. Dominic is the populous and dark Palencia, or courts tormented with passions; and Rome and Toulouse, where minds and hearts are agitated and astir.
Behind St. Francis we see a tranquil landscape, solitary and shining. For his penance he seeks an islet lost in the centre of the melancholy Trasimene lake. Then he goes to preach on the rocks of Montefeltro, afterwards in the secluded woods of La Verna, 'The rude rock, between Tiber and the Arno'. After a Council St. Dominic shuts p65himself into his lonely cell by night in the middle of a busy city. St. Francis, on the contrary, takes his repose uncovered on the bare ground, in the open country, near the place where he had held the Chapter of the Rushes, and blesses his beloved Assisi refulgent in the sun.
Even the art which was inspired by their burial-places reflects the singular contrast of these two great souls: over the body of St. Dominic there are the sculptures of Nicola Pisano, in which reappears the artistic strength of Rome: over the tomb of St. Francis there are the tranquil, thoughtful Giottesque pictures, reminding us often of the thought of Alighieri, who not only understood these contrasts, translating them into famous verse, but gave to these poetic descriptions a 'musical value' so varied and profound as to render the contrast of types and of places even more sensible and intense.
The terzineº are grave in which he describes Calaurega, the country of the Spanish Saint with his forceful influence and inflexible will, but the verses in which he sings of the divine spirit of St. Francis portray the candid piety and the gentle tranquillity of the Umbrian solitude.
It is difficult for anyone to apprehend the thoroughly intimate beauty of the Dantesque poetry, unless he has been to Assisi, resting on 'the fertile slope of lofty mountain'. A hundred streams of limpid water murmur in the silence of the lonely roads, and far above, the citadel dominates the splendid panorama. To the right the Tescio flows into the Chiascio, that is the water that descends p66from Gubbio, 'from the hill elect of blessed Ubald'; to the left, the Topino, together with the Ose, joins the Chiascio near Bettona, and uniting merrily they throw themselves into the Tiber, which flows proudly onward, as though conscious of its historic grandeur, anxious to reach the walls of the Eternal City. And beyond the plain, and across the Tiber, there are five or six chains of mountains melting into the horizon — and on either side many blue hills; and Perugia, where art and speech alike have charm, looks towards us from her vaporous height.
. . . . . . . . . .
Ascending the hill to Assisi, mind and eyes alike turn to the left where the temple of St. Francis appears behind a double row of arches, which has the appearance of an enormous viaduct. The temple has three stories; profound, deep, cut in the living rock, the lowest holds the tomb of the Saint; far larger is the central church, adorned with sepulchral monuments and decorated by Simone Martini, by the Lorenzetti, Gaddi, Giotto and other famous men, but sombre, compressed, obscure. Majestic, elevated, luminous, on the contrary, is the church above, where the Giottesque paintings are seen together with those of Cimabue and Pietro Cavallini. The different aspect of the three churches suggests a strange comparison with the three regions of death, but this suggestion is repellent because in the deepest and lowest which might represent the Inferno, there is the venerated tomb of the Holy Brother, and so in the central church, which would p67be the Purgatorio, the work of Giotto appears meditative and complex.
Giorgio Vasari said that the stories of Assisi were inventions of Dante, with whom the Florentine painter would have disputed on the arguments of his pictures.
Modern criticism both denies these assertions and also that the Poet and the Painter met in other towns of Italy. However, as one proceeds slowly in the examination of historical coincidence, the presence of Dante in some place where Giotto was working appears less dubious. Alighieri says that he was in Padua in 1305. Well, it seems that his acute imagination is to be discerned in some allegorical figures painted by Giotto in the celebrated chapel of the Scrovegni: Charity is girdled by a rosy hue, with three living flames on her head, expressing love, and in her right hand a vase of flowers and fruit; and Temperance is tranquil and secure, with a little bit in the mouth, and the hilt of her sword bound by a ribbon to the sheath, so that prudent may be both words and acts. But if the help of Dante may be seen in these hypothetical figures, one must not think equally hypothetical the paintings of the Inferno on the entrance wall.
The study of many representations of the Inferno to be found in Italy, of an earlier date than 1306, makes one believe that by actual date, the Giottesque Inferno of Padua is the first one divided into circles. On the mosaic of Torcello, the Inferno occupies several compartments, but only for decorative reasons.
p68 In conclusion, before the day of Giotto's fresco, we only find in the obscure paintings and puerile sculptures depicting the Inferno, a disordered collection of nude figures, and of demons armed with flails; all the damned are in an open plain, with flames, darkness and serpents.
Now, what reason is there to exclude from the work of the Painter, every possible suggestion of the Poet? for critics now agree that Alighieri and Giotto were in Padua together, and in the frightful and grotesque narration of Beyond the Tomb, anterior to Dante, there does not appear a true and proper distinction of the punishments ('a penal classification'). Certainly it is not permissible to believe the converse, that is, that Dante received inspiration from Giotto, for, although the Dantesque Inferno was not yet published in 1306, still the idea was already conceived and possibly some of the Cantos written.
Thus later, in the last years of his life, Dante sought Giotto, and is with him in the shade of the 'divine forest, thick and living', on the deserted shore of the Adriatic, near the tombs of the latest Caesars.
. . . . . . . . . .
And now let us return to Assisi and enter into the splendid temple of St. Francis. In the four compartments of the central vault of the middle church, Giotto and his disciples frescoed the allegory of Chastity and of Obedience, the Glory of St. Francis and his marriage with Poverty.
Chastity is seen on the summit of a sea-girt tower with p69indented bastions. To arrive in her presence, wings are necessary, and indeed two flying angels accost her: the one offering her the helmet for defence, and the other a branch of perpetual evergreen, which, like virginal virtue, the mortal body notwithstanding, can keep one ever young. Below, at the foot of a castle, is a crowd of warriors and of angels, distinct in three symbolic groups: St. Francis receiving three devotees who go to him asking the cross and poverty; a young man purified in a tank and re-baptized by the angels, and finally Venus, unchaste, pursued by other angels with the scourge, crab and Cross. This scene is tragically grotesque. Death with four wings expels a naked young man, before whom is Venus, bound and girdled by a cord from which hangs a quiver with many human hearts. Her feet are those of a rapacious eagle. She is thrust into the arms of Vice, who has the head of a wild boar, and although thrown on the ground, holds out his arms desirously.
Not less popular is the allegory of Obedience, portrayed in a placid figure with a severe and pallid face, the index finger of the left hand raised to enforce silence, while with the right she places a yoke on the Saint. At her sides are Humility, a maiden holding a lighted taper with downcast looks, and opposite, Prudence with two faces united in one head, one old expressing reflection, one young showing discreet and gracious compliance. She holds in her hand a mirror with which she dazzles a kind of centaur with a body of a man, the forefeet of a horse, p70the hind legs of a wolf, a triple symbol of prevalent vices: Pride, Envy and Avarice.
But neither the two allegories already described, nor the rich and varied glory of St. Francis attract the attention and awake admiration to the same extent as the fourth picture, which depicts the allegory of Poverty, which is noteworthy not only because of the execution and holy mirth of the subject, but also and indeed, even more, for the counterpart of thoughts that we find in the Divine Comedy. At the corners, as in the allegory of Chastity, we see two groups of contrary character. To the left a youth divesting himself of his garment to cover an old beggar, to the right another youth holding a falcon, symbolic of pleasure, and who makes a motion of contempt towards Poverty; near him is an aged man, the figure of Avarice, clutching to his bosom a purse of money. But on high and in the midst of a crown of angels, all religiously attentive and absorbed, Jesus Christ performs the marriage of Poverty with the Little Brother of Assisi. Jesus holding His head slightly back with His gaze on St. Francis, touches with His right hand the right of the Bride, who is yielding herself with a celestial smile to the marriage, and with the left hand transmits the ring, received from the Saint, to Hope. The latter raises her hand to take it, while Charity, who is beside her represented with a garland of roses and the three flames, as at Padua, timidly offers a heart to the bride and bridegroom.
And what an enchanting figure is Poverty!
p71 In front of her is a barking dog, and a boy throwing a stone, whilst another child tries to hit her with a stick. She cares not; she gazes at Francis smiling. She wears a ragged white tunic, patched and pieced, tied at the side by a cord. She steps on a dry thorny bush, but from it rises a long spray gladdened in front with leaves and roses.
Marriage of St. Francis with Poverty:
And Dante tells us that Francis incurred the anger of his father, because he wedded Poverty:
For he in youth his father's wrath incurred
For certain Dame, to whom, as unto death,
The gate of pleasure no one doth unlock:
And was before his spiritual court
Et coram patri was to her united;
Then day by day more fervently he loved her.
. . . . . . .
Their concord and their joyous semblances,
The love, the wonder and the sweet regard,
They made to be the cause of holy thoughts;
So much so that the venerable Bernard
First bared his feet, and after so great peace
Ran, and in running, thought himself too slow.
O wealth unknown! O veritable good!
Giles bares his feet, and bares his feet Sylvester
Behind the bridegroom, so doth please the bride!
Some writers of the history of painting have observed that in this last allegory, the chief group hardly corresponds with the poem of Dante.
In this case their defect comes from lacking a their p72knowledge of the Divine Comedy, for many other likenesses is it easy to find there. As in the Canto of the Paradiso, so also in the fresco, the Saint therefore weds Poverty. To give a true impression of her condition, we see the dog advancing towards her, and Dante accurately notices that 'aristocratic vice of education', for dogs bark naturally at persons badly dressed and barefoot.
With the same fury, and the same uproar,
As dogs leap out upon a mendicant,
Who on a sudden begs, where'er he stops.
The figure of the youth holding the falcon on his wrist is making towards poverty the unseemly action that the thief Vanni Fucci makes towards God in the Inferno. And finally, is it not easy to find in Dante the symbol of the roses and the thorns? He uses it exactly like Giotto, to show that many things which superficially seem and are sad and painful may be converted into a delight and benefit.
For I have seen all winter long the thorn
First show itself intractable and fierce,
And after bear the rose upon its top.
. . . . . . . . . .
Although useful, it would be too vast an argument to examine the Giottesque pictures treating of symbolic and biographical episodes of the life of St. Francis, both in Assisi and in Santa Croce in Florence, but we need not continue the descriptions.
p73 Rumohr would not linger on these paintings, calling them 'too conventional'. To us it seems that he sees a defect when he should find a virtue. He does not notice the psychological harmony, so to speak, between St. Francis and Giotto, does not observe that the Giottesque art, precisely by virtue of the symbol, by the allegorical explanation and by the technique itself, is the art that better than any other can express the Franciscan conception, in the same way that the poetry of Dante is symbolic and allegorical. In the Hymn of St. Francis to Creation and in the Fioretti there breathes a poetic spirit almost superhuman, which has the undefinable value of some Christian parables. The more, therefore, that art can distract herself from the concrete and thus become spiritual, so much the better does it fulfil the letter of the Hymn and of the Fioretti, and thus better portray the spirit of the Saint.
We have said that the Giottesque technique lends itself also to this argument. Its forms and colours far from the real go to complete this abstruseness. Giotto is often constrained to express an ideal peace and tranquillity in his figures, and in his 'choral masses' a similar religious attention, because, as yet, the new art is unskilful in surprising all the movements that the potent Renaissance may give to the human body.
From Masaccio onwards, it would have seemed to an artist to be a proof of little ability and less imagination to make two figures alike: while Giotto and his school, on the contrary, did not hesitate to make one hundred figures p74all turned in the same direction, and with their arms equally extended or closed.
Besides this, clothing does not show the shape of the body, it seems indeed that under the folds, no human members are hidden. And in this manner the figures assume a spiritual aspect, almost as though they were free, and barely touching the earth. 'They seem ready to leave it at the first invitation from heaven. And the almond-shaped eyes, fixed, and without lucid expression, without the luminous sparks of the pupil, seem eyes profoundly absorbed, in which faith has extinguished all terrestrial desire, all earthly cupidity!'
What a difference from the Saints and Madonnas of Raffael, of A. del Sarto, of Titian and of Allegri! All smiling, florid, human! What a difference between the strict and polished execution of thirteenth century and the brushwork of those artists whom Vasari calls, with reason, 'flesh painters'!
When we see St. Francis and his disciples suffering in silence the sadness of the world, preoccupied by heaven and not by earth, absorbed in contemplative ecstasy and in the vision of a supernatural good, we must perceive a full correspondence with the art of Giotto and the poetry of Dante.
. . . . . . . . . .
At the first breath of naturalistic art the form of the Poor Man changes. In the work of the Umbrian painters, Perugino and Pintoricchio, when he is present with other p75saints in their symmetrical compositions, his is a sweet and simple figure, no longer ecstatic and without the depth and symbolism that are his by right. In the paintings of Fra Angelico, he maintains still this same simplicity, because this master is but a spirit of the thirteenth century launched into the following one, — the same applies to Benozzo Gozzoli, the faithful follower, though with less spirituality, of the Blessed Angelico.
And as art proceeds, he gradually loses more of his primitive character. In a picture of the family Pesaro by Titian, except for the contemplative air of the thirteenth century, he abandons the repose and simplicity of the fourteenth. Then in the paintings of the sixteenth century he becomes lymphatic and almost dull. In the Academy of S. Ferdinand in Madrid, there is a canvas of Murillo in which one may see him listening to an angel playing the violin, with the expression of a weary man.
Let us advance further, and St. Francis with few exceptions, will appear more tragically solemn than a Pergamene orator with book, skull and cross, looking nearly always grave and severe, and hardly ever with that happy air and sweet expression of which Dante speaks; and we shall see him in bare cavern or dark cell, or else in a gilded church, but no more in the wide and luminous landscape of Assisi or of La Verna, of the Porziuncola or of Lake Trasimene. In the Antwerp Museum we may see the last Communion of St. Francis by Rubens, a picture of great artistic merit, but unpleasing in conception. The foundation is a p76Baroque church with shining marble columns crowned by Corinthian capitals and an altar protected by a baldacchino of damask. The priest, amongst the clergy, richly robed in gold and embroidered chasuble, gives the Host to St. Francis, who is dragged naked to the altar by a number of Brothers. The picture at once recalls to mind the Communion of St. Jerome by Caracci, and that one even more celebrated by Domenichino in the Vatican. And here also he seems a fanatical martyr, an apostle afflicted by faith; not the saint happy in his sacrifice, the saint ingenuous, calm, content with a felicity that none but he comprehends and feels, not the pious humble monk who talks to the swallows and sings the glory of God, consoled, with his spirit on high like the lark of Dante which springs freely in the air, overcome by the sweetness of its own song.
. . . . . . . . . .
St. Francis of Assisi met St. Dominic several times. In Rome, before Innocent III, at the Porziuncola during the Chapter of the Mats, at Cremona and at Bologna. This last city had then a special importance in the world. Study procured for it the concourse of the most celebrated doctors and scholars of Central Europe. It is therefore but natural that propagators of the Faith and founders of New Orders should congregate there.
Meeting of St. Francis be St. Dominic:
We have seen that St. Dominic established himself there, and there died. Francis sent one of his Apostles, Bernardo, and the Fioretti recounts that 'The children seeing him in an p77old and tattered habit, scorned and abused him as they would do a madman, yet Fra Bernardo patiently and joyfully bore with everything for the love of Christ: indeed so that he might be more mocked he actually betook himself to the market-place, and sitting there, many children and men came round about him; and one would pull his hood behind and one in front: one would throw dust and one stones, one seized him from here and one from there, and Fra Bernardo continued always in one mood, the same patient mood, with a cheerful countenance, and did not move, and did not complain; and for many days he returned to this same spot to endure similar things. And the patience gained him the faith and conversion of many'. And it was not long before St. Francis went there himself and found St. Dominic. 'Arriving one day in the city of Bologna all the people of the city ran to see him, and so great was the crowd, that the people with great difficulty could enter the piazza, and there were men and women and scholars: and St. Francis rose up in the middle of that place, and stood high, and began to preach that which the Holy Spirit had taught him, and he preached so marvellously, that it seemed as though it were an angel rather than a man, and his words were like celestial arrows, piercing the hearts of those who heard them; and by reason of that discourse a great number of men and of women were converted to penitence. Amongst these were two noble students from the Marches of Ancona, who were both touched to the heart by this same inspired teaching, and they came to p78St. Francis saying that they would wholly abandon the world.'
In addition to the Fioretti, we have the testimony of Thomas of Spalato, who was a Scholar of Bologna in 1220, and who actually saw the person and heard the unequal words, though always ardent and inspired, of the Monk of Assisi on the Feast of the Assumption. He recounts how Francis preached in the Piazza in front of the old Palace of the Commune, not theological arguments, but the theme of peace and pardon between the citizens of the troubled city. Thomas describes him shabby in clothing, frail in person and suffering in face. But what powerful sweetness in his words! For his sake many old offences were forgiven and Niccolo dei Pepoli and Rizziero da Modena and Bonizio and Pellegrino entered his order.
. . . . . . . . . .
The following year St. Dominic died, while the foundations were being laid of the first church of the Friars Minor. Glorious years followed for Bologna; the art of the Pisani, animated by the inspiration of classicism, left there a masterpiece and Giovanni da Brescia built the Gothic nave of San Francesco. In the sanctuary of the magnificent church, amongst the cypresses, arose the sepulchres and pyramids of the scholiasts to whom we owe the revival of the ancient juridical grandeur, and the monuments of the poets of the 'gentil stil nuovo'. Every one in death desired to lie under the protection of St. Francis, artisan and artist, philosopher and poet.
p79 Instead, in San Domenico there is the tomb of one great man, King Enzo,1 the fair son of the Emperor Frederick, dead in captivity, the proud eagle fallen into the claws of the Guelphic lion!
1 Enzo, King of Sardinia, son of Frederick II, taken prisoner by the Bolognesi 1249, died 1279.
Images with borders lead to more information.
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
Page updated: 13 Jan 13