San Francesco, Assisi - Lower Church

Presbytery and Apse


  
  The vault frescoes, attributed to Giotto, are allegories of the three main principles of Franciscanism: poverty, chastity and obedience. The fourth fresco, which faces the nave, shows St Franics in Glory, Glorios Francisc
  These images are, theologically speaking, perhaps the most interesting (and argued about) of all the lower church frescos. Let's look at the content before moving on. 

The Allegory of Poverty shows a poverty-stricken woman dressed in rags. Children are throwing stones at her. Christ is officiating at the marriage of St Francis to this symbol of poverty. Angels are carrying away those tempting worldly goods. On the left, a young man is removing his clothes in imitation of St Francis. on the right, some well-to-do young men are sneering. 

The Allegory of Obedience is set in the chapter house of a friary. The central figure is obedience; on either side are Prudence (left) and Humility (right). Note that Prudence has two heads; she can see both the past and the future.  Obedience, while indicating silence,  is placing a yoke over the  head of a monk. Above this figure, disembodied hands place another yoke over the head of St Francis. 
  Two young men, a monk and a layman, are next in line for the yoke and are lead there by an angel; Prudence hold out a mirror to them, a symbol of knowledge. On the right, rather surprisingly, a centaur is being sent away by another angel acting as bouncer. The centaur is a symbol of disobedience and wilfulness. 
   There is disagreement in the sources as to whether Obedience is male or female: I'll leave that one for your consideration! 

The Allegory of Chastity has the personification of chastity, named St. Castitas, high up in a castle protected by rather militaristic angels. On the left below, a Franciscan, a Lay Brother and a Poor Clare approach St. Francis, ready for the ritual washing that is going on in the centre and is being supervised by two more personifications, St Munditia (cleanliness) and St Fortitudo (no translation from Latin required!) There is much speculation about whether these figures represent real people, including Dante. Hmm. 
  Lively events are taking place at the lower right: four devils are being chased away by angels, including one named Penitentia. I have included a close-up of them below. (Note: if you would like more detail on others I can recommend the Web Gallery of Art, wga.hu. Look for Giotto then click on frescoes in the lower church. ) 
  Once again, the names of the devils are a test for our Latin, or, in my case, Google translate Latin to  English.  At the the top, looking like a spider, is Mors (Death.) Next to him is Ardour (Burning desire) with his head on fire. Below him is Amor, which translates as Love but doesn't really mean that - lust or carnal desire is closer. Finally comes Immunditia (Uncleanliness) with a boar's head. 

The Apotheosis of St Francis Shows a bethroned St. Francis supported by angels. Are they lifting him to Heaven, or carrying him towards us? The pose is suggestive of images of the resurrected Christ in Majesty - or more potently, Christ on the seat of Judgement, with trumpeting angels on either side. And thereby hangs a whole lot of Franciscan theology. 



Allegory of Poverty




Allegory of Chastity



Allegory of Obedience




Apotheosis of St Francis


The devils from Chastity

  So far, all seems clear: the frescoes illustrate moral lessons on how to be a good Franciscan. But there is much more to them than that. If we look more closely at the small images to the side of the four frescoes and in the central boss, we can begin to see what is going on here. Look at the image of Christ and then read Revelation: 
His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire; And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters. And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp two edged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength. Revelation 1 v 14 16.


A horseman of the Apocalypse



Apocalyptic Christ with the book of the seven seals


A horseman of the Apocalypse

  
   Relating these  images of the Apocalypse to St. Francis reflects the writings of Saint Bonaventura, amongst others. In his Life of St Francis Bonaventura had already pointed to the connection between the stigmatisation of Francis and the Crucifixion of Christ. But he went much further. He  was not the only theologian to suggest was that, while Christ's death lead to the prospect of a second creation, St Francis could be identified with the sixth angel of the apocalypse, saving the world and signalling the dawn of humanity's third age.  

   And I saw another angel ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God: and he cried with a loud voice to the four angels, to whom it was given to hurt the earth and the sea, Saying, Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads. Revelation 7 v 2 - 3

  What, one wonders, would that humble man from Assisi have made of this? 
Apse fresco. 

  The Last Judgement fresco shown below was painted by Cesare Sermei in 1623. Sermei is regarded as somewhat uninspired; one guide book sums up this painting in one word - gloomy. (Mind you, isn't that what Last Judgements are meant to be? Only if you are on the wrong side, of course.) This criticism may have been made before the recent restoration, which has removed the gloominess. 
  What art historians most regret is the disappearance of what was there before Sermei got to work on it, particularly as it is described in some detail by Vasari and others. It was, apparently, another allegorical painting, this time concerning the stigmatisation of St. Francis. 



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