In New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, Park Avenue heiresses, Soho grunge hippies and Japanese tourists are all enjoying the magnificent works of art created to honor St. Francis of Assisi.
One question they might wonder about is the paradox of a “Treasury of St. Francis,” the poverello. If anything, the contrast is more glaring in our own age of unparalleled wealth and conspicuous consumption. Some critics, such as The New York Times, look at works like the gilded silver chalice commissioned by Pope Nicolas IV and see an ironic display of “Riches for a Saint Who Scorned Them.” Others, who perhaps understand Francis more profoundly, such as noted author Father Benedict Groeschel of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, see a “spectacular artistic tribute.”
For the past 700 years, the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, an artistic treasure house, has simply been one of the most revered shines in Christendom. The building and decoration of the basilica was one of the greatest artistic achievements of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. Its collection of art has inspired tourists and pilgrims alike with wonder and devotion.
But, in the early hours of Sept. 26, 1997, two earthquakes ravaged Assisi. Sections of the basilica's vaulting collapsed in the upper church and 2,000 square feet of fresco masterpieces by Giotto and Cimabue were destroyed.
Most of the public funds available to deal with the disaster were needed for earthquake victims, so an unprecedented exhibit of some 70 items from the Church's artistic treasures has been mounted to call international attention to the importance of the restoration of the basilica itself. Approximately 30 items from Vatican, Italian, other European and American collections were added to those from Assisi. The goal is to aid the restoration so that the basilica can reopen again for pilgrimages in celebration of the Jubilee Year 2000.
It is a project that St. Francis would likely approve, for rebuilding churches was close to his own heart. His first response to Christ's bidding to “rebuild my Church” was to repair the ruined church of San Damiano near Assisi.
Yet some Franciscans of the day were not in favor of building the basil-ica which bears the saint's name. Francis, after all, only wanted a pauper's grave. Yet a great pilgrimage site could help spread his message, so Francis’benefactors had no such qualms. The Basilica of St. Francis became one of the most extensive and ambitious decorative campaigns ever undertaken.
Some of the most significant supporters were King Henry III of England, King Wenceslaus of Bohemia, King Philip of France and the French houses of Anjou and Valois. The French King Louis IX, who was canonized in 1297, donated one of the finest illuminated manuscripts of the 13th century, The Missal of St. Louis.
The first Franciscan pope, Nicholas IV, commissioned the finest surviving example of medieval Italian gold and enamel work, “The Chalice of Nicholas IV” by Guccio di Manaia. A later Franciscan pope, Sixtus IV, commissioned the imposing “Franciscan Tree Tapestry” by Antonio Pollaiuolo, which is perhaps the premier masterpiece of 15th-century Italian textiles. St. Bonaventure, who became the final and official biographer of St. Francis, donated many of the basilica's most important relics of St. Francis.
But perhaps the basilica's greatest artistic legacy was the creation of “The Cantiere of Assisi,” a great artistic workshop centered at the Convent of Assisi during the years of construction from 1230 to 1330. Teams of glassmakers, fresco painters, manuscript scribes and illuminators, panel painters, wood-carvers and goldsmiths from Europe and the Byzantine east converged on Assisi to help create a new artistic vocabulary that eventually paved the way for the Renaissance. There was no greater contributor to this process than Giotto himself. His new realism and the bold sense of shape in his great frescos at Assisi served as textbooks for Michelangelo and da Vinci.
Perhaps it is not such a great irony that Francis, a poet and church builder, would figure so profoundly in the story of art. What The New York Times and so many of our age miss about St. Francis is that, while he repudiated his own inheritance, he was not one “who scorned all wealth.”
According to one of his early biographers, “He wished at one time to send his brothers through the world with precious pyxes, so that wherever they should see the price of our redemption [the Eucharist] kept in an unbecoming manner, they should place it in the very best” vessels. For himself, Francis desired poverty; for Christ, nothing but the best.
Perhaps Father Groeschel puts it best when he quotes St. Francis’testament in his book, In the Presence of Our Lord. “Above everything else, I want this most holy Sacrament to be honored and venerated and reserved in places which are richly ornamented.” One hopes that the restoration work will make the great Basilica of St. Francis just such a place again.
Stephen Hopkins writes from New York.
“The Treasury of St. Francis of Assisi” is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York through June 27. In July the exhibit will move to the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.