The Madonna of St. Francis, or the Madonna of the Harpies, as it is sometimes called, is one of Andrea del Sarto’s most beautiful pictures. It is called the Madonna of the Harpies because of the Harpies which Andrea placed at the corners of the throne on which the Virgin stands. Why he did this, who can tell? The Harpies were among the most disgusting creatures of Greek Mythology. Fortunately, these are not very large, and Andrea gave them beautiful faces. This is the one fault in an otherwise faultless picture. St. Francis stands on one side of the throne, St. John the Evangelist on the other.
The Virgin is said to be an idealized portrait of Andrea’s handsome wife. The picture is in the Uffizi gallery in Florence.
The figure at the right of the throne is St. John the Evangelist. He was the son of Zebedee and brother of James the Great. He was the disciple whom Jesus loved, he was ever with the Master; he was on the mountain, and saw the Transfiguration; he leaned on the bosom of Christ at the Last Supper; he stood by the Cross in the hour of agony; he received the last words of Jesus concerning his mother; he assisted in taking the body from the cross and in laying it in the new tomb. He went with Peter, after the death of Mary, throughout Judea, preaching the gospel of Christ. Later he lived at Ephesus, and while there founded one of the seven churches. Tradition says he lived to be a hundred years old, and that he wrote his gospel at the age of ninety. The eagle is his symbol. In Greek art he is represented as an old man, with flowing beard. In western art he is usually represented as young and beautiful, sometimes as middle aged, and never old, except when he is represented on the island of Patmos, writing the Revelation.
His attributes besides the eagle are the pen, and book and cup, the latter either with the serpent or the consecrated wafer. The cup with the serpent coming from it illustrates the legend told by St. Isadore. When St. John was in Rome an attempt was made to kill him. The poison was put in the sacramental cup. When he took the cup, the poison came forth in the form of a serpent, while the assassin, hired by the Emperor Domitian, fell dead at his feet. His proper colors are a blue or green tunic, with red drapery. In Andrea del Sarto’s picture he is represented as young and beautiful; he is standing and holds the book.
On the left stands St. Francis of Assisi. Matthew Arnold says : “In the beginning of the thirteenth century there appeared in Italy to the north of Rome, in the beautiful Umbrian country at the foot of the Apennines, a figure of the most magical power and charm, St. Francis. His century is, I think, the most interesting in the history of Christianity, after its primitive age, more interesting than even the century of the Reformation, and one of the chief figures, perhaps the very chief, is St. Francis. And why? Because of the pro-found, popular instinct which enabled him more than any man since the primitive age to fit religion for popular use. He brought religion to the people. He founded the most popular body of ministers of religion that has ever existed in the church. He transformed monachism by uprooting the stationary monk, delivering him from the bondage of property, and sending him as a mendicant friar to be a stranger and sojourner, not in the wilderness, but in the most crowded haunts of men, to console them and do them good.”
Renan said that, next to Jesus, St. Francis of Assisi was the sweetest- soul that ever walked this earth.
St. Francis’ real name was Giovanni Bernardone. He was called Francesco, the Frenchman, because of his proficiency in French. His father was a wealthy merchant, and had large dealings with France. In his youth Francis was beloved by every one, because of his kind heart and gentle manner. As he grew older he lived a gay life, spending money lavishly, dressing splendidly. During one of the quarrels between Assisi and Perugia Francis was taken prisoner and remained so for one year. On his return home he had a long, serious illness came near to death. During this time his thoughts were turned toward God, and he resolved, if his life was spared, he would forsake his old ways. After his recovery he started out one day richly dressed as usual. He met a ragged, filthy beg-gar, who asked for alms. Francis recognized him, for he had once been one of the richest and noblest of the city; filled with pity he took off his rich clothes, and put them on the beggar, and taking the beggar’s ragged clothes, put them on himself. That night he had a dream. He found himself in a magnificent chamber filled with beautiful things, jewels and arms of all kinds, and these arms were all marked with the sign of the cross, and in the midst stood the figure of Christ, who said to him: “There are the riches reserved for my servants, and the weapons wherewith I arm those who fight in my cause.” When Francis awoke he believed God intended him for a great captain. Soon afterward he went to the church of San Damiano to pray. This church stands near the western gate and was in ruin then, as it is today. He knelt before the crucifix to pray; he heard in his soul a voice, which said to him, “Francis, repair my church which falleth to ruin.” He, not understanding, thought the church in which he knelt was meant. He hastened home and taking some pieces of cloth and other merchandise from his father, sold them and gave the money to the priests of San Damiano to repair the church. His father was very angry, so angry that Francis feared him and ran away and hid himself in a cave for several days. At last he came out and started home, but he was so changed, so thin, so dirty and wild-looking, no one knew him. The children in the street hooted at him and called him a madman. Francis took it all patiently and humbly, believing it to be one of the trials which he was to suffer in the new life, to which he believed he was called. His father, when he saw him, believed him mad, bound him, and shut him up in his own room. His mother went to him, spoke words of pity and love, unbound him and begged him not to shame his parents and friends by such behavior. At last his father took him to the Bishop, a most holy man. When Francis saw the Bishop he took off his clothes, threw them at his father’s feet, saying, “Henceforth I recognize no father but Him who is in heaven.” The legend says that the Bishop wept with admiration and tenderness, and ordered his attendants to furnish a cloak for Francis. It was of the coarsest stuff, taken from a beggar who was standing near by. Francis received it joyfully as the first fruits of poverty to which he had dedicated himself. He was then in his twenty-fifth year, and from that time forth he lived as one who had cast away life.
He first went and took care of some lepers in a leper hospital. For a time he wandered over those beautiful Umbrian mountains, from Assisi to Gubbio, singing with a loud voice, so the legend says, and praising God for all things; for the sun that shone above; for the day and the night ; for his mother, the earth ; and sister, the moon ; for the winds that blew in his face; for the pure, precious water. “Praised be my Lord,” he sang, “for our sister water, who is very serviceable unto us, and humble and precious and clean.” He praised God for the flowers under his feet, and the stars above his head; he saluted and blessed all creatures, whether animate or inanimate, as his brethren and sisters in the Lord.
Thus in prayer, penance and charity he passed a few years. He begged his food. What alms were given him he gave to the reparation of the church of St. Damiano, and other churches in the vicinity. Among these was the chapel at the foot of the hill, on which Assisi is built and called S. Maria degli Angeli.
Here he lived in a narrow cell. The fame of his piety and humility attracted to him several disciples. One day at mass he heard a sermon from the text, “Take nothing for your journey, neither shoes, nor bread, nor money, nor two coats.” Believing it especially meant for him he adopted it as his rule of life. He was already barefoot, poorly clad, and a mendicant. He owned but one thing he considered superfluous, this was his leather girdle. He threw it from him, substituting a hempen cord, which bis followers afterward adopted. Then he went forth to preach the gospel of repentance, of charity, of humility, of a new life, preached from his great loving heart, believing that God put the words that he spoke into his mouth. It was a time of ferment and unrest; the gay sensuous life was gone, men were looking for the speedy coming of anti-Christ, they were excited by the marvelous and melted by the pathetic, and “the words of St. Francis,” says Mrs. Jameson, “fell upon them like sparks of fire upon dry summer grass.” St. Francis was one of the world’s greatest evangelists. Nothing like his preaching had ever been heard. He brought comfort to those who mourned, and peace, and hope, to the poor and down-trodden. Many joined themselves to him. It was then he conceived the idea of uniting men into a society, and for purposes new to the world. He adopted as the rule of his society, “Poverty, Chastity and Obedience.” They were to possess nothing. He would not allow any temporal goods to be vested in his order ; he would not allow any building or convent, that he might say with truth that he possessed nothing; hence the picturesque allegory of his espousal with the Lady Poverty. At last St. Francis went to Rome to have the Pope con-firm his order. The Pope, Innocent III., looked upon him as a crazy enthusiast, and refused; but that night the Pope had a vision. He saw the walls of the Lateran tottering, and kept from falling by St. Francis. He immediately sent for him and granted him the privileges he desired for his society, and gave him full dispensation to preach. St. Francis gave his brothers the name “Frati Minori,” to signify that humility should be their chief attribute, and that each should strive for the lowest, instead of the highest place. St. Francis had the “gift of tears.” He wept constantly, we are told, for his sins, and those of the world. He determined to go to Egypt and Syria, and preach the gospel there, hoping to die the death of a martyr. He went to Damietta, was taken before the Sultan, who thought him a harmless lunatic and sent him home. A few years later Pope Honorius confirmed his order. He then resigned his office, as its head, and retired to a cave in Mt. Alvernus. Here he fasted and prayed, his thoughts always upon things above. On one occasion, after he had fasted fifty days, and was in an ecstasy of prayer, looking up he beheld a wonderful vision. He saw a seraph with six shining wings bearing down from above, and between his wings, the form of the crucified one. He was overcome by the vision ; after he had recovered from it, he saw imprinted on his hands, and feet, and side, the wounds of the Saviour. This event is known as St. Francis receiving the Stigmata. This is the event which obtained for him the title of “The Seraphic.” St. Francis out of his great humility desired that this should not be known, but he’ could not conceal these marks, and they were seen by many.
His last days were full of suffering and as death approached he wished to be placed on the ground to die there. He attempted to repeat the 141st Psalm, and as he repeated the last verse, “Bring my soul out of prison,” he died. His body was carried to Assisi and buried in the spot which he himself had chosen, and which from that time became consecrated ground. Assisi has become the Jerusalem of Italy. In 1228, two years after his death, he was canonized by Pope Gregory IX., and in the same year the foundation for the magnificent church at Assisi, which bears his name, and which covers his grave, was begun. It was an object of interest to the Christian world.
Nearly all the Princes of Christendom sent offerings. Assisi granted the quarries of marble; the best artists of the time decorated it within and without.
J. Addington Symonds describes in his own beautiful way an Easter morning in Assisi. He says : “We are in the lower church of St. Francis. High mass is being sung with orchestra, and organ, and choir of many voices. Candles are lighted on the altar, over-canopied with Giotto’s Allegories. Women in bright kerchiefs kneel upon the stones, and shaggy men from the mountains stand or lean against the wooden benches. The whole low-vaulted building glows duskily, the frescoed roof, the stained windows, the figure crowded pavements blending their rich but subdued colors, like hues upon some marvelous moth’s wings.
“Over the whole scene, in the architecture, in the frescoes, in the colored windows, in the gloom, on the people, in the incense, from the chiming bells, through the music, broods one spirit, the spirit of him who was the ‘co-espoused, cotransforate with Christ,’ the ardent, the radiant, the beautiful in soul, the suffering, the strong, the simple, the victorious over self and sin, the celestial, who trampled upon earth and rose on wings of ecstasy to heaven, the Christ inebriated saint of visions, supersensual and life beyond the grave. Far down below the feet of those who worship God through him, St. Francis sleeps; but his soul, the incorruptible part of him, the message he gave the world, is in the space around us. This is his temple. He fills it as an abiding spirit, felt everywhere, nowhere seized, absorbing in itself all mysteries, all myths, all burning exaltations, all abasements, all love, self sacrifice, pain, yearning, which the thought of Christ, sweeping the centuries, hath wrought for men.
“Let therefore choir and congregation raise their voices on the tide of prayer and praise, for this is Easter morning, Christ is risen. Our sister ‘Death of the Body,’ for whom St. Francis thanked God in his hymn, is reconciled to us this day, and takes us to the gate whence floods of heavenly glory issue from the faces of a multitude of saints.”
( Originally Published 1912 )
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