Bonaventura Berlinghieri, "St. Francis Altarpiece" tempera on wood 60' x 42' (approx. 5" x 3.5) Byzantine Style (maniera greca) painted during the Gothic Period

Bonaventura Berlinghieri,  "St. Francis Altarpiece," tempera on wood 60' x 42' (approx. 5' x 3.5') Byzantine Style (maniera greca) painted during the Gothic Period

The main reasons why this altarpiece is studied are because it is an excellent example of the Byzantine painting style during the late Gothic period, it also represents St. Francis who is a historical religious figure who represents humanistic changes in culture during the late Gothic period into the Renaissance.

This is painted with egg tempera on wood panel. The medium of egg tempera is quick drying but very prominent in terms of color. The style that this was painted in, sometimes referred to as maniera greca, which literally translates as “in the Greek style or manner,” is a very flat not very illusionistic style of painting that is probably closer to what we think of as a cartooning style than a style that is meant to depict light and shadow or shading. If you look very closely at the figure and how things like how the facial features are rendered, you’ll probably notice that there is an attempt at shading however, it is not based in observing how light shades an object.

The way in which the people or figures are painted is also not very realistic and also closer to what we consider a cartoon rather than a realistic depiction of the bodies’ proportions and anatomy. The figures tend to be elongated, the posture is stiff and unrealistic, and the proportions of the face are unrealistic as well. For example, the eyes seem to be placed a little too high up into the four head, the nose is too long, and the mouth is placed further into the chin than his realistic.

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The creation of space, and the relationship of the sizes of the buildings to the people in the pictures is also not realistic. For example, the figures seem to be too large when compared to the buildings. The size and scale of the figures to the buildings to the landscape our overall disproportionate and unrealistic.

The size of the panel, which is about 5 feet tall, makes the central figure of St. Francis almost life-sized. St. Francis is placed in the center of the composition. The composition is overall symmetrical, which means that you can cut it in half and it seems to be equal on either side of a vertical line. The central figure of Francis divides the overall composition into a left and right series of six scenes are vignettes that contain images of Francis and other figures as well as environments. The scenes represent the life and times of Francis and in particular focus on his deeds.  The scenes range from, Francis ministering to the poor, to animals, and helping to save souls in general.

Francis literally takes the words of Jesus into his life by giving away all of his earthly possessions, ministering to the poor, and in general doing unto others as he would have others do unto him. The three knots in Francis’ rope belt represent, poverty, chastity, and obedience to God’s will. The subject matter of the altar focuses on the central figure of Francis and several scenes from his life that led to his canonization as a saint and amplify the concepts of charity, living a life of non-materialism, and thinking about as well as behaving in the way that Jesus prescribes in the New Testament.

In the upper left-hand scene, Francis receives the stigmata from a type of Angel called a Seraphim. This scene, explains and amplifies the wounds that Francis exhibits in the almost life-sized figure on his hands and feet that represent an honor that he receives because these are the same ones that Christ received while on the cross. Probably the next most important scene for Catholics is the scene in the middle of the left-hand column in which St. Francis delivers a sermon to the animals in the wild, because all living creatures are invested with God’s love. By the way, this does not necessarily mean that St. Francis believed that all animals have souls because this is inaccurate according to Catholic theology.

This altarpiece was painted in 1235 less than 10 years after Francis his canonization. Probably the most important reasons why this painting is taught as part of the great Canon of European late Gothic painting is because it represents the ideas that Francis represented. Since St. Francis taught several revolutionary ways of thinking about Catholicism, he’s almost like the “poster boy” for the changes that were happening in the transition from the late Gothic to the early Renaissance periods. For example, Francis represents humanism and critical thinking in the way that Francis chose to physically act out the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Previous to the life of St. Francis, the Catholic Church was the sole source of information about God for the layman (every day nonclergy).  The Church interpreted, interceded and imposed a very clear point of view about God's teachings and was the sole source of biblical interpretation.  In fact, laymen were not even allowed to own a Bible, not that they could afford one since they were hand written and very expensive.  This point of view and religious/political system meant that everyday people could not actually "know" God for themselves and supported and maintained a point of view that one was born to a place on this earth that was unchangeable.

Francis's point of view that "To follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and to walk in his footsteps." Breaks with this tradition and demonstrates the beginning of a point of view in which the lay person could not only have a direct experience of God but also alter their behavior in accordance with their knowledge without needing to consult the Church for interpretation.  This is important and interesting because aside from the ideas exhibited in the teachings of Thomas Aquinas, this represents the beginning of a change in the way of thinking and the stirrings of individual critical thought.  The art that follows, after the Byzantine period and in the late Gothic and Early Renaissance exhibits a new and critical point of view of the world.

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