Metamorphosis pp 385-397 | Cite as

The Restitution of the Terrestrial Iconography of St. Francis in the Post-Trent Era: Annibale Carracci’s St. Francis in Penitence

  • Daniel M. Unger
Part of the Analecta Husserliana book series (ANHU, volume 81)


St. Francis of Assisi occupied a prominent place in the minds of Italian churchmen of the late sixteenth and the early seventeenth centuries. The admiration for St. Francis during that period can be compared only to that of the times when he lived, died, and was sanctified, in the thirteenth century.1 The works of art made in the later period in which St. Francis constitutes the main figure bear witness to this admiration. The large number of times and the variety of scenes in which he is featured, are a clear indication of his unique role as one of the great religious models in the era of the Catholic Reformation.


Hand Gesture Thirteenth Century Open Book Late Sixteenth Bear Witness 
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  1. 1.
    On thirteenth century imagery of St. Francis, see: George Kaflal, St. Francis im Italian Painting (London: Allen and Unwin, 1950, Passim): William R. Cook, Images of St. Francis of Assisi in Painting, Stone and Glass from the Earliest Images to ca. 1320 in Italy (Florence and Perth: L. S. Olschki, 1999, Passim).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Askew expounded on the spiritual aspect of the saint and the spiritual writings of that period, in particular that of St. Francis de Sales. She focused mainly on those aspects of the representations of St. Francis that illustrate his visions and ecstasy. She showed how the iconography of these scenes, taken from Celano’s and St. Bonaventura’s lives of St. Francis, was based on parallel scenes from the life of Christ. See: Pamela Askew: Pamela Askew, “The angelic consolation of St. Francis of Assisi in post-Tridentine Italian painting”, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institute (1969), vol. 32, pp. 280–306.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    In the 1982–1983 Exhibition Catalogue on the image of St. Francis in the Counter Reformation, many aspects concerning the iconography of the Franciscans were discussed, but no attempt was made to deal with him as a penitent saint. See: Exh., Cat. L’imagine di San Francesco nella Controriforma (Rome: Edizioni Quasar, 1982–1983).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    On the variety of most common visionary scenes concerning St. Francis depicted during the period that followed the Council of Trent see: Claudio Strinati, “Ritforma della Pittura e Riforma Religiosa”, in Exh., Cat. L’imagine di San Francesco nella Controriforma (Rome: Edizioni Quasar, 1982–1983 ), pp. 33–56.Google Scholar
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    See: Émile Maˆle, L’Art Religieux après le Concile de Trente: Étude sur L’Iconographie de la Fin du XVIe Sièecle, du XVIIe Siècle, du XVIIIe Siècle: Italie, France, Espagne, Flandres (Reprint of the 1932 edition) ( Paris: A. Colin, 1951 ), p. 97.Google Scholar
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    See: Maˆle, 478. Villamena’s engraving of St. Francis as a penitent saint is included in the 1982–1983 catalogue, but again without focusing on the religious aspect of what St. Francis represents in this engraving and why. The engraving was categorized as part of the group of works representing the saint at prayer. See: Simonetta Prosperi and Valenti Rodino`, “La Diffusione dell’Iconografia Francescana Attraverso L’incisione”, in Exh., Cat. L’imagine di San Francesco nella Controriforma (Rome: Edizioni Quasar, 1982–1983 ), pp. 162–163.Google Scholar
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    See: Maˆle, pp. 65–71.Google Scholar
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    In this context, it is interesting to quote the protocol of the Council of Trent:“Chrw(133) and so penance has rightly been called by the holy fathers a laborious kind of baptism.” N. P. Tanner (ed.), Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, 2 vols. (London: Sheed and Ward, 1990), vol. 2, p. 704.Google Scholar
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    On the influence priest-confessors wielded over penitents see S. Haliczer, Sexuality in the Confessional: A Sacrament Profaned (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 25. Following the Council of Trent, priests were required to press their congregations to carry out the sacrament of penance. This necessitated personal acquaintance with them. From 1614 on, priests were required to make lists of the worthy and unworthy members of their congregation. L. Nussdorfer, Civic Politics in the Rome of Urban VIII ( Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992 ), p. 24.Google Scholar
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    St. Carlo Borromeo, in a document focusing on the sacrament of penance, stresses the status of the priest-confessor, and the need for him to decide by himself the degree of satisfaction required from the penitent. Carlo Borromeo, “From the Milan Penitential of Cardinal Borromeo (ca. 1565–1582)”, in J. T. McNeil and H. M. Gamer (eds.), Medieval Handbooks of Penance: A Translation of the Principal Libri Poenitentiales and Selections from Related Documents (New York: Octagon Books, 1965) (Reprint of the 1938 edition), p. 364. See also: Tanner, vol. 2, p. 708.Google Scholar
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    One day, when he was wondering over the mercy of the Lord with regard to the gifts bestowed upon him, he wished that the course of his own life and that of his brothers might be shown him by the Lord; he sought out a place of prayer, as he had done so often, and he persevered there for a long time with fear and trembling standing before the Lord of the whole earth, and he thought in the bitterness of his soul of the years he had spent wretchedly, frequently repeating this word: O God, be merciful to me the sinner. Little by little a certain unspeakable joy and very great sweetness began to flood his innermost heart. He began also to stand aloof from himself, and, as his feelings were checked and the darkness that had gathered in his heart because of his fear of sin dispelled, there was poured into him a certainty that all his sins had been forgiven and a confidence of his restoration to grace was given him. He was then caught up above himself, and absorbed in a certain light; the capacity of his mind was enlarged and he could see clearly what was to come to pass. When this sweetness finally passed, along with the light, renewed in spirit, he seemed changed into another man.” See: Marion A. Habig (ed.), St. Francis of Assisi. Writings and Early Biographies, trans. Raphael Brown, Benen Fahy, Placid Hermann, Paul Oligny, Nesta de Robeck, Leo Sherley¬Price ( Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1973 ), p. 250.Google Scholar
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    One day when he was in a lonely place by himself, weeping for his misspent years in the bitterness of his heart, the joy of the Holy Spirit was infused into him and he was assured that all his sins had been forgiven.” See: Habig, p. 649. On the penitence of St. Francis, see also: Richard C. Trexler, Naked Before the Father; The Renunciation of Francis of Assisi ( New York: Peter Lang, 1989 ), pp. 53–57.Google Scholar
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    Saint Bonaventure reports that, because Saint Francis saw that he could not follow the stainless Lamb without some stain, he at least made an effort to cleanse his soul daily with copious showers of tears and to wipe away all stains, even the smallest. If by this same grace of God your interior eyes were opened and you could see how ugly a sinful soul is, how it gives off a foul odor like a rotting corpse, and how God and the holy angels shrink to look at it even though it may dwell in a beautiful, handsome, and very attractive body in the eyes of men, then beyond any doubt you would be so terrified that you would not allow yourself for any reason to become such or long remain in such a state.” Robert Bellarmine, Spiritual Writings, Trans. John Patrick Donnelly, S. J., and Roland J. Teske, S. J. (eds.) (New York: Paulist Press, 1989) (reprint of the 1614–1619 ), pp. 141–142.Google Scholar
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    See: Donald Posner, Annibale Carracci, A Study in the Reform of Italian Painting Around 1590,2 Vols. (London: Phaidon, 1971 ), Vol. 2,p. 11.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    ABSIT MIHI GLORIARI NISI IN CRUCE DOMIMI MEI, IN QUA EST SALUS, VITA ET RESURRECTIO NOSTRA’’. For its sources see: Posner, vol. 2, p. 11.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    There are two versions to this painting, see also the St. Francis in the Galleria Nazionale dell’Academia di Venezia, Venice. See: Posner, fig. 29.Google Scholar
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    See: Sivigliano Alloisi and Stephen Pepper, “Annibale Carracci’s St. Francis with Crucifix rediscovered”, Burlington Magazine, vol. 138 (1996), p. 94.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Ludovico’s painting is dated to the years 1583–1586. For this painting and its date, see: Gail Feigenbaum’s account in Emiliani Andrea (ed.), Ludovico Carracci, Exh. Cat. ( Milan: Electra, 1994 ), p. 18.Google Scholar
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    Anton W. A. Boschloo, Annibale Carracci in Bologna: Visible Reality in Art After the Council of Trent, 2 Vols. (The Hague: Government Publication Office, 1974 ), Vol. 1, p. 29. St. Bonaventura describes St. Francis conversation with the Lord during prayer. See: St. Bonaventura, “Major Life of St. Francis”, in: Habig, p. 707.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    See, C. Ripa, Iconologia: Overo Descrittione di Diverse Imagini Cavate dall’Antichita, e di Propria Inventione (Hildesheim: G. Olms, 1970) (Reprint of the 1593 edition), pp. 370–373. St. Bonaventura writes about St. Francis: “He was occasionally seen raised up from the ground and surrounded with a shining cloud, as he prayed at night with his hands stretched out in the form of a cross.” St. Bonaventura, “Major Life of St. Francis”, Habig, pp. 707–708.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Strinati, Cat. No. 23.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    St. Bonaventura, “Major Life of St. Francis”, Habig, p. 671.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    See: Peter Humfrey, Lorenzo Lotto (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997), Fig. 153.Google Scholar
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    Exh. Cat. Lorenzo Lotto: Rediscovered Master of the Renaissance, National Gallery, Washington, Cat. No. 48.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    For the lizard as a representative of sudden death, I have relied on interpretations of Caravaggio’s Boy Bitten by a Lizard by Posner, p. 324 and Howard Hibbard, Caravaggio ( London: Harper and Row, 1983 ), p. 44.Google Scholar
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    See: Piero Bianconi, All the Paintings of Lorenzo Lotto, 2 vols., trans. Paul Colacicchi ( New York: Hawthorn Books, 1963 ), p. 88.Google Scholar
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    See: Millard Meiss, The Painter’s Choice: Problems in the Interpretation of Renaissance Art (New York: Harper and Row, 1976), p. 197; E. F. J. Rice, Saint Jerome in the Renaissance ( Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1988 ), p. 85.Google Scholar
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    See Baronius’s account on this matter in his most known Annals: C. Baronii, Annales Ecclesiastici, vol. v, 1866, Bari, p. 403.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    But though in my fear of hell I had condemned myself to this prison-house, where my only companions were scorpions and wild beastsChrw(133)” St. Jerome, Select Letters of St. Jerome, trans. F. A. Wright (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963) (Reprint of 1933), Letter XXII, p. 68.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    St. Francis used to look for deserted places in the wilderness to pray, not to live in solitude. See: St. Bonaventura, Major Life of St. Francis (see: Habig, p. 706).Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    Book One, 22, “When he had set forth for him in order all these things, the holy Francis, hearing that the disciples of Christ should not possess gold or silver or money; nor carry along the way scrip, or wallet, or bread, or a staff; that they should not have shoes, or two tunics; but that they should preach the kingdom of God and penance, immediately cried out exultingly: ‘This is what I wish, this is what I seek, this is what I long to do with all my heart.’ Then the holy father, overflowing with joy, hastened to fulfill that salutary word he had heard, and he did not suffer any delay to intervene before beginning devoutly to perform what he had heard. He immediately put off his shoes from his feet, put aside the staff from his hands, was content with one tunic, and exchanged his leather girdle for a small cord. He designed for himself a tunic that bore a likeness to the cross, that by means of it he might beat off all temptations of the devil; he designed a very rough tunic so that by it he might crucify the flesh with all its vices and sins;” See: Thomas of Celano Saint Francis of Assisi: First and Second Life of St. Francis with selections from The Treatise on the Miracles of Blessed Francis, trans. Placid Hermann (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1988) (Reprint of 1963 ), pp. 22–23.Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    See Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, trans. Granger Ryan and Helmut Ripperger (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1948), pp. 269–270. For Christ as the second Adam see, G. M. Lukken, Original Sin in the Roman Liturgy; Research into the Theology of Original Sin in the Roman Sacramentaria and the Early Baptismal Liturgy ( Leiden: Brill, 1973 ), p. 361.Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    See Posner, Cat. No. 6.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • Daniel M. Unger
    • 1
  1. 1.Ben-Gurion University of the NegevIsrael

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