Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata
Mariotto di Nardo
Italian, Active ca. 1394 - 1424
Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata, ca. 1408
Tempera and gold on panel
23.5 x 28.9 cm (9 1/4 x 11 3/8 inches)
Museum Appropriation Fund 17.521
In this small panel, Mariotto di Nardo represents Saint Francis of Assisi kneeling in the wilderness to receive the stigmata, the five wounds of Christ’s crucifixion. Followers of the founder of the Franciscan Order recorded that he witnessed this seraphic vision in 1224 while he prayed and fasted on Mount Alverna in the Italian Apennines. The image follows iconographic traditions established in the early Renaissance by Giotto (1267- 1337), which show the saint in a rocky landscape near small, classically detailed structures. The painting formed a segment of a predella, a band of narrative scenes in the lower register of an altarpiece that often depicted dramatic moments in the lives of the saints who appeared in the upper wings. Another panel from this predella, depicting the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence (17.520) is also in the Museum’s collection.
Each of these three panels was originally part of a predella, a band of scenes in the lower register of an altarpiece. The nearest shows St. Benedict (ca. 480 – 547), the founder of Western monasticism, blessing a repentant Totila, the king of the Ostrogoths in Italy. Totila’s courtiers wear sumptuous 15th-century Florentine dress, in stark contrast to the austere monastic robes of St. Benedict and his sister, St. Scholastica, who stands behind him. The landscape, dotted with neighboring hill towns, recalls the region around Monte Cassino, the Benedictine monastery southeast of Rome. This panel is related to a lost altarpiece commissioned for the church of St. Benedict in Nursia (Umbria), the saint’s birthplace. The two smaller panels belonged to an earlier altarpiece commissioned for the Church of Santo Stefano in the town of Pane, near Florence. These scenes from the lives of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Lawrence appeared below taller side wings that flanked a central image of the Coronation of the Virgin. Other sections of that altarpiece are now in the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. In the first, St. Francis is shown kneeling in prayer and receiving a vision of a winged angel who pierces him with the stigmata — the five wounds of the crucified Christ. His brown robe of the Order of Friars Minor is tied with a rope whose knots represent the religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The second panel depicts St. Lawrence, who, while following Pope Sixtus II’s mandate to distribute the church’s wealth to the poor and sick of Rome, was condemned to be tortured on the gridiron during the persecution of Christian clergy ordered by the Roman Emperor Valerian. While Valerian’s soldiers stoke the fire, St. Lawrence appears impervious to the flames and bears his torture with composure in accordance with Christian tradition. He died in Rome in 258.
About the work
This kneeling figure in a simple wool robe, with a tonsure of hair around a shaved scalp, is Saint Francis of Assisi. Francis was a 13th-century Christian friar who renounced his family’s wealth and established the itinerant Franciscan religious order in Assisi, Italy. The Franciscan order was devoted to following the teachings of Jesus through a life of poverty, preaching, and care for the needy. The painting depicts a pivotal moment in about 1224, a few years before Francis’s death. While fasting and praying in the Italian Apennine mountains, he had a vision of a heavenly being with six wings. According to testimony written by Franciscan followers, Francis was wounded on his hands, feet, and side during the vision by the winged figure. Jesus was wounded in these same places during his crucifixion in the 1st century, and some Christians believe that spontaneously receiving these same marks is a supernatural sign of steadfast faith and commitment.
Mariotto’s scene uses the established artistic convention of presenting a figure kneeling alone in devotion while an otherworldly figure descends to deliver the stigmata. The gold halo of light encircling Francis’s head communicates his sacred nature; Pope Gregory IX proclaimed Francis a saint in 1228, two years after his death.
Painted in egg tempera—a quick-drying mixture of egg yolk and pigment—with gold on a wooden panel, the work was an image in a predella, the base of an altarpiece. While the central panel of an altar often depicted Mary enthroned, scenes in the predella often depicted significant episodes of the lives of saints. Ubiquitous during the early Renaissance in Italy and other European countries, large altarpieces displayed important Christian figures and stories for the education and spiritual experience of religious devotees. This altarpiece was made for the cathedral in Pane, Italy, just outside of Florence.
Several visual characteristics reveal that the artist used innovative painting techniques to communicate the religious narrative and to deepen the convictions of the religious viewer. Saint Francis’s robe, body, and face are modeled in lifelike light and shadow to emphasize his three-dimensional physicality. The landscape is rendered in such a way as to believably suggest the mountain setting. The painter shows the sides of the buildings receding in space using an intuitive sense of perspective. These techniques are examples of the growing naturalism and realism of early Renaissance painters. However, Francis is larger in size than the trees and buildings, a strategy intended to emphasize his significance; this is a convention from earlier representations that stressed hierarchies of importance.
Saint Francis’s approach to faith and the Franciscan order’s emulation of the practices and teachings of Jesus stood in contrast to some of the most significant religious institutions of that era. In contrast to monasticism, which called for a retreat from society, the Franciscans went out into communities in Italy and abroad to interact with and assist ordinary people.
Looking closely at Francis’s appearance, pose, and expression. How is his religious devotion indicated? What is his relationship with the other figure?
Consider the details of this landscape together. What does it tell us about Francis’s life just before the moment depicted? Saint Francis was known for his appreciation of nature. How does the artist show Francis’s relationship to his environment?
Accounts of religious experiences are important records for religious followers; they also inspire visual artists. To explore the relationship between written and visual texts and how they function in a religious context, have students pair up to work from St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata. One person will write a brief narrative from the point of view of one of Francis’s followers; the other will describe the vision from Francis’s point of view. Have them read each other’s accounts to see how they compare.
Saint Francis receiving the stigmata was a popular subject of Christian religious painting during the Renaissance and later. How does this work, painted later in the 15th century by the Italian artist Giovanni Bellini, present Francis and the landscape? Ask students to work in small groups to compare and contrast these two works. Have them discuss both depictions of Francis’s experience and his relationship to the divine.
Consider this painting’s role as one small element in a larger altarpiece. It’s important to remember that Christian altarpieces presented exemplary figures to congregations gathered for specific rituals. This 15th-century example by Fra Angelico is a good example of this format. Because they weren’t the central image, images presented in the predella offered the painter more freedom from artistic convention. They often depicted miraculous events or challenging situations endured by saints or holy figures.
Discuss predella paintings as examples of storytelling, and ask students to consider what type of role model Francis offers for the Christian viewer. Students might also consider how this scene relates to or reinforces the main scene of the altarpiece, which often presented Mary enthroned with Jesus. Break students into small groups to conduct research about how altarpieces were used to educate late medieval and Renaissance era congregations.
Annie Labatt and Charlotte Appleyard. “Mendicant Orders in the Medieval World” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/mend/hd_mend.htm (October 2004).
Jennifer Meagher. “Italian Painting of the Later Middle Ages” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/iptg/hd_iptg.htm (September 2010)