Francisco de Zurbarán, “Saint Francis in Meditation” (1635–39), oil on canvas (© The National Gallery, London)

LONDON — What can the saints really mean to us now, we mighty gathering of rude and uproarious non-devouts? In an exhibition called Saints Alive!, the British artist Michael Landy, in residence at London’s National Gallery between 2010 and 2013, turned them into figures of fun, giant kinetic beings who beat their breasts with such fury that their rackety bodies almost fell apart. 

But what of particular saints? What of Saint Francis, that selfless feeder of the birds and the animals? Does he not deserve to be remembered benignly? Artists have certainly treated him with much kid-glove reverence across the centuries. Saint Francis of Assisi, a new show of paintings at the National Gallery that sweeps us through from the panel paintings of the 13th century to the 21st, taking in Sassetta, Caravaggio, Murillo, Botticelli, El Greco, and many others, seems almost to confirm that fact. Here is the saint (born in 1181/2), gentle, humble in the extreme, forever the giver rather than the taker. 

It is the haunting hooded cowl that serves as the focus in Francisco de Zurbarán’s “Saint Francis in Meditation,” painted in Seville between 1635 and 1639. The saint is kneeling and alone in his stone cell, the very embodiment of brokenness and self-abnegation. He clutches a skull that is angled (by he who clutches it with such fervor) to stare back up at him eyelessly. His mouth is agape, his eyes barely visible, his habit ragged at the elbow — this is the man who was called il poverello (the poor man) of Assisi. 

El Greco, “Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata” (1590–95), oil on canvas (© The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin)

The saint’s life had much to do with bodily pain, and many paintings show off his receipt of the stigmata of Christ in his palms as solid proof of his calling. Curiously, we onlookers often do not register much of that pain ourselves when we look at many of these early paintings because they are are so sweet to behold — the glorious color combinations of Sassetta’s cycle of painted panels, for example. You could almost say there is too much sweetness about some of these early responses; Botticelli shows him engulfed by winged angels with their instruments, treading the gold ground of heavenly air. Such stagings ease away the pain, and almost seem to aestheticize the saint. 

The exhibition is staged to nod us gently in the direction of restraint, homage, and a degree of pious reflection. When we enter, the low-lit galleries proceed directly ahead, and then peel off to the left and right, seeming at first in the shape of a Greek or Roman cross, basilica-style. And then there is the nature of the audience. It is perhaps a little unsurprising, given the subject matter, that many of those walking around on the afternoon of my visit are elderly. They proceed slowly, and very pointedly, toward what they want to see. It feels like an ancient pilgrimage of sorts. Only the trappings of modernity — clothing, watches, phones, etc. — are different. 

The appearance of a lump of old, sack-like material, with a snaky belt of hemp, wedged inside an improbably luxurious gold frame, is what coaxes audiences into a slightly different frame of mind. This is, we are told, the actual habit worn by Saint Francis, “patched up over time.” What a survivor! It belongs to the Community of the Friars Minor Conventual of the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence. 

Arthur Boyd, “St. Francis Lying in the Flames” (1965), lithograph, The British Museum, London (© The Trustees of the British Museum / Arthur Boyd’s work reproduced with the permission of Bundanon Trust)

So here we have it at last: vivid evidence of the roughness and the hardship of his life. Then, in the 1950s, Alberto Burri creates a “painting” called “Sacco” (1953), made from a patchwork of sackcloth and fabric, with an emphatic red disc of oil. The Arte Povera movement takes up the saint — think of the very “poverty” of their chosen materials. Giuseppe Penone finds affinities between the life of Saint Francis and his own attitude toward the making of art, how the principles of poverty and rigor practiced by the saint allow him to think anew about his own physical presence in relation to an organic being such as a tree. 

Other unusual developments begin in the second half of the 20th century. The idea of Saint Francis takes on muscularity, power, and forcefulness as never before, for two reasons. First, his image begins to be associated with liberation theology and its empowerment of the individual body and soul. Then, in 1980, comes the final benediction of modernity: Marvel Comics raise him up as an exemplary warrior for goodness, an action man of superhero status, by telling his life story in Francis, Brother of the Universe, in which he goes from being a teenage party animal to a tonsured friar. Its most dramatic scene shows Saint Francis receiving the stigmata as flashing rays shoot from Christ’s wounds. 

Nietzsche, who often cursed the miserable weakness of the Christian god, would surely have approved of Christianity’s upping its game in this way.

Mr. John Buscema, Francis, Brother of the Universe, Marvel Comics, 1980 (© Disney, all rights reserved)
Craigie Aitchison, “Saint Francis” (1993), oil on canvas, Jerwood Collection (© Jerwood Collection / Bridgeman Images)
Frank Cadogan Cowper, “Saint Francis of Assisi and the Heavenly Melody” (1904), oil on canvas, Private collection (© courtesy the owner) 
Stanley Spencer, “St. Francis and the Birds” (1935), oil on canvas, Tate, London (© Estate of Stanley Spencer. All rights reserved 2023 / Bridgeman Images / photo: Tate)
Sassetta, “The Stigmatisation of Saint Francis” from the San Sepolcro Altarpiece (1437–44), egg tempera on poplar (© The National Gallery, London)
Alberto Burri, “Sacco” (1953), sackcloth canvas, oil on canvas, Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Collezione Burri (© Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri, Città di Castello – photo Alessandro Sarteanesi)

Saint Francis of Assisi continues at the National Gallery (Trafalgar Square, London, England) through July 30. The exhibition was curated by Gabriele Finaldi, director of the National Gallery and Joost Joustra, Ahmanson Research Associate curator in Art and Religion at the National Gallery. 

Michael Glover is a Sheffield-born, Cambridge-educated, London-based poet and art critic, and poetry editor of The Tablet. He has written regularly for the Independent, the Times, the Financial Times,...