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St Francis of Assisi: The Saint who Loved Animals
Giving away his clothes...
Poor, humble and happy
Francesco Pietro di Bernardone was born into the wealthy Morosini familiy in the town of Assisi, in Umbria in Italy, around 1181. As a youth, he led an irresponsible and carefree life. However, a spell in Perugia as a prisoner of war opened his eyes to human suffering. In 1206, he left home to care for the beggars and lepers he saw around him. By 1209 he was preaching the Gospel, and living a life of poverty. In 1210, he wrote to Pope Innocent III and asked permission to form a religious order from the people that now followed him, Francis. One of these followers was a beautiful young woman, the future Saint Clare. In the longer term, she was to found her own order of nuns, the Poor Clares. Francis founded the Order of Friars Minor, and also the Third Order of St Francis for men and women who wanted to follow him but who were unable to live the strict lives of Franciscan friars.
Soon, the Franciscans were preaching all over Europe. Oddly, Francis didn’t lead his order. He hated wielding authority and he left the administration of the order to others. Pope Honorius formally confirmed the Franciscan rule in 1223. The rule was especially relevant to the 1200s, because it challenged a heresy let loose by a breakaway religious sect named the Cathars.
The Cathars believed the material world to be evil but Francis preached that God made the world and consequently, everything in it was bound to be a fount of goodness. Even today, he is known for his love of animals and all living creatures. There are numerous stories of how the fiercest of beasts, like wolves and bears, became docile in his presence and of how he preached the Gospel to flocks of birds. He believed himself to be at one with nature and in later life he wrote a poem, The Canticle of Creatures in which he mentions Brother Sun and Sister Moon.
Francis did not baulk at using his family’s wealth to help the church. In a small, broken-down chapel in the town of St Damiano, Francis had a vision of the crucified Christ asking him to repair the church. Francis did so, with money that belonged to his father – and his father disowned him. Tradition has it that when Francis left the Bernardone household, he undressed in front of strangers and cast his clothes on the ground. For the rest of his life, he eschewed personal luxury, and gave all his goods to the poor and needy while raising money for the church. One of the churches he restored was the Porzincula or the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli near Assisi, where he was to spend much of his life.
In person, Francis was filled with a zest for life, and often expressed joy by dancing. In 1224, he received the stigmata, the marks of the suffering of Christ, on his hands and feet, and on his side. Sadly, Francis was blind by now, his body worn out by a life of fasting and devotion to others. Two years later, on October 3, he died at the Porzincula. Two years later again, his friend and patron, Pope Gregory formally canonized him. The same year, devotees of Francis began to build the Basilica of St Francis of Assisi, in Assisi.
Aobout 1267, the artist Giotto di Bondone was born. Giotto was credited by writer Giorgio Vasari (1511-74) as having “completely banished the crude, Greek style of drawing” and instead, began drawing from life. In short, Vasari saw Giotto as the instigator of the Italian Renaissance in art. Giotto has long been credited as the painter of a cycle of 32 frescoes depicting the life of Francis that appeared (sadly much destroyed by a 1997 earthquake) on the walls of the Basilica of St Francis. Scholars now dispute the origin of the frescoes. However, it is interesting that Francis lived just as the Renaissance began, in time to inspire the work of many artists. Whatever, the life of Francis has no doubt inspired many people to lead better lives.
The image accompanying this piece is called St Francis renounces his Earthly Father, from an altapiece by Sassetta (Stefano di Giovanni, c, 1391-1451). It was painted beyween 1437 and 1444, and in it we see Francis casting his clothes on the ground in front of his father's house.
Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari