St. Francis in the Desert
Many a nonbeliever has been struck dumb by the spiritual force of this painting, which may well be Giovanni Bellini's masterpiece, one of the finest works in The Frick Collection, and possibly the greatest Renaissance painting in America. The artist has portrayed St. Francis of Assisi (1181/2-1226) alone in a stony wilderness, stepping forward from his simple shelter into a golden light that seems to transfigure him spiritually. Perhaps he is receiving the stigmata—the wounds of Christ's crucifixion—as it is believed he did in 1224 during a retreat on Mount Alverna. While this subject was frequently represented in the late fifteenth century, it usually included a small seraphic crucifix emitting rays. Here, however, the miracle is implicit in the transcendental light that originates at upper left, brightens the walls of the rock formation, and, in the right foreground, casts deep shadows behind the saint and the espaliered limbs that screen his workspace. Reinforcing this effect, the laurel tree at the upper left glows and bends, as if compelled to move toward a supernatural force. The landscape is filled with richly observed details—animals, birds, persons, plants, castles, objects such as the skull and sandals, even a bell and cord to ring the canonical hours. The scrap of paper blown against some branches at lower left bears the proud signature of the artist.
Oil and tempera on poplar panel
Painted on the commission of Giovanni Michiel, Venice. Taddeo Contarini, Venice (1525). Palazzo Corner, Venice (?). Purchased c. 1850 by W. Buchanan. Sir John Murray and others sale, June 19, 1852, Christie's, Lot 48, sold for £735 to J. Dingwall, Tittenhurst, Sunninghill, Berkshire. Thomas Holloway, apparently acquired with the estate of Tittenhurst. Bequeathed by him to his sister‐in‐law, Miss Mary Ann Driver (Lady Martin‐Holloway). Bought in 1912 from the trustees of Miss Driver by Colnaghi and Obach. Knoedler. Frick, 1915. Source: Paintings in The Frick Collection: French, Italian and Spanish. Volume II. New York: The Frick Collection, 1968.
A moving evocation of the spiritual life and legacy of St. Francis of Assisi, Giovanni Bellini's St. Francis in the Desert is also a compendium of exquisitely researched detail. The gigapixel image brings to light the many objects and events represented in this masterpiece of circa 1480. For every detail mentioned in this brief guide, dozens more are visible to the attentive eye.
In the foreground, Bellini's Francis appears in a simple brown habit, secured around the waist with a rough rope whose three knots symbolize the virtues of obedience, chastity, and poverty. Above and to the left of the figure, a grafted plant grows from an outcropping of rock; behind the saint, a carefully tended monastic garden contains healing plants such as mullein and juniper. A jug for watering the garden stands at lower right, and opposite it, an inquisitive rabbit peeks drolly from a gap in the masonry.
The saint's hut is lovingly handmade, the lattice in front constructed of poles of different species of wood. On the desk appears the richest object in Bellini's humble painting, a red book bearing a faded tassel. The woven willow fence at the back of the structure sprouts new growth, and the shelter's roof is shaded by intricate tendrils of live grapevines. Above hangs a bell connected to a knotted string, used to ring the canonical hours of the Christian liturgy.