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This article is taken from
100 Best Paintings in New York

Text by Geoffrey Smith


Arcadian Dreams / Symbolist Visions


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Giovanni Bellini: St Francis in the Desert - 1480

New York, Frick Collection

Francis was born Giovanni di Bernardone, the son of a wealthy textile merchant. In his early 20s he famously repudiated his earthly wealth to live the life of a devout ascetic, becoming an itinerant dressed in rags. In 1209, having attracted a small group of adherents, he traveled to Rome and was given an audience with Pope Innocent III who gave his permission for the creation of the Franciscan order of Friars.

On his return in 1221 from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, faced with dissension within the order, which had grown exponentially, Francis abjured his leadership and returned to the contemplative life. A few years before, a nobleman had given Francis land on the Tuscan mountain known as La Verna in the province of Arezzo and it was while fasting and praying here in 1224 that  legend records he received the Stigmata – lesions resembling the five principal wounds inflicted on Christ during His crucifixion.

Bellini has depicted Francis standing as though receiving the Stigmata although, unlike other representations of the same subject, we cannot see the vision of the crucified Christ hovering above him on seraphim wings nor are there any visible ‘rays’ indicating the transfer of the wounds to his hands and feet. Rather Bellini has sought to symbolize this event in a much more subtle way by illuminating Francis and his immediate surroundings with an unnatural light emanating from a hidden source to the left which mesmerizes the saintly friar, lights up the rock face and the tree to the top left and which casts strong shadows behind Francis and the objects in his study.

But there is another layer of significance which Bellini has built into his iconography. Early Franciscan writers compared Mount La Verna to the desert described in the Book of Exodus and they made a further connection between what happened to Francis on La Verna and the communication between God and Moses on Mount Sinai. So Bellini has constructed a landscape which reflects these associations. St Francis does indeed inhabit a barren, desert-like outcrop but within a more benign landscape which conforms to that of eastern Tuscany.

However this is not quite the isolated mountainous retreat which the real Francis endured – his makeshift study has been constructed not far from a rather beautiful city. It has been suggested that this represents the Heavenly Jerusalem to which Francis will gain entry through his chosen life as an ascetic. The cave also connects Francis with St Jerome, the first saintly hermit, but his discarded pattens left within his study are a further reference to Moses (and God’s command that Moses should ‘put off the shoes from thy feet for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground’) as is the water spout which drains the rocky outcrop and which refers to the fountain that Moses miraculously called forth from the stony wilderness of Sinai.

Some scholars have acclaimed this picture as the greatest Renaissance painting on show in New York and it is hard to argue with that opinion. It is filled with the most marvelous detail. The ethereal light picks out plants, such as the yellow mullein behind Francis, animals and birds, including a heron, a donkey and a memorable rabbit emerging hesitantly from its burrow near to St Francis’s right sleeve, as well as the peculiar Mantegnesque rock formations which guard the saint’s retreat. The brown and ocher colors of the foreground are balanced by a wonderfully lustrous blue sky – Bellini was a master when it came to depicting the sky but surely this is one of his most splendid, a progenitor of all those later Venetian skies created by Titian and Veronese.

Beneath it all in the lower left hand corner a piece of parchment is caught on some dead branches; a closer look reveals that it is inscribed Joannes Bellinus.

Image: Wikimedia Commons


Contemporary Works

c1480 Hugo van der Goes:  Dormition of the Virgin, Bruges, Groeningemuseum

c1480 Sandro Botticelli:  Primavera, Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi

1480–89 Hans Memling:  The Annunciation, New York, Metropolitan Museum

Further Paintings of Interest

Agony in the Garden

Giovanni Bellini


Sandro Botticelli

Portrait of Giovanna de' Tornabuoni

Domenico Ghirlandaio