"St. Francis in the Desert" at the Frick

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Curator Susannah Rutherglen discusses Giovanni Bellini’s painting “St. Francis in the Desert,” a hallmark of the Frick Collection and one of the most important Italian Renaissance paintings in America. She’ll explain how X-radiography, infrared relectography, paint analysis, and surface examination have addressed questions about the painting’s subject, creation, and later alterations. In a “New Light: Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert” is on view at the Frick Collection through August 28.

The Frick Collection, New York; photo: Michael Bodycomb
Giovanni Bellini (c. 1430/1435–1516), St. Francis in the Desert, c. 1475–78

oil on poplar panel, 49 x 55 7/8 inches

Comments [13]

Ed from Larchmont

Oops, it was Michaelangelo's Moses, of course.

Aug. 10 2011 06:16 AM
Ed from Larchmont

It's common but a little silly to connect St. Francis with animals directly. The contribution of the Franciscans is to stress that God is our loving Father, and that therefore we are all brothers and sisters, including to the extent possible the animals(see Linda's comment).

The skull is small, not like in Hamlet, and not scary: death remains, but has been overcome, is a means now for learning how to live.

A Catholic interpretation of this painting might be that there are three regions of experience: the city, from which St. Francis withdrew; the cell to which St. Francis went to do penance, to study, and to draw closer to God (the cliff here); and the union with God, the light just outside the painting, which St. Francis is welcoming. The cell of St. Francis on the mountain side here is not an end in itself but the way to get from the city to union with God, through penance (St. Francis' order has the name 'brothers of penance').

So this painting, beautiful, is also a catechism of the way to find God.

Aug. 09 2011 09:51 PM
linda from Greenwich, CT

Praise be you my Lord, with all Your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun, who is the day and the night through whom You give us light. (St Francis of Assissi)

Aug. 09 2011 07:33 PM
Ed from Larchmont

Of course St. Francis would only look up in greeting in that way to greet God and/or the sun, there's an identity between the two in Catholic theology since the physical world mirrors the spiritual world.

Aug. 09 2011 01:44 PM

Hey Ed,

To answer your question, the skull is a "momento mori", a symbol commonly used in art to remind the viewer of his mortality.

I love this painting!!

Aug. 09 2011 01:35 PM

Hey Ed,
To answer your question, the skull on the table is a "momento mori", which is a symbol in art commonly used to remind the viewer of his mortality.

I love this painting!!

Aug. 09 2011 01:34 PM
Ed from Larchmont

The rabbit might allude to Moses in that the two ears look like the two tablets, or the beard on Da Vinci's Moses, that's my guess.

Aug. 09 2011 01:29 PM
Amy from Manhattan

I like that the barefoot saint's sandal are under the desk behind him! But whose skull is on top of the desk?

Aug. 09 2011 01:24 PM
Ed from Larchmont

Is that a skull on top of his prayer table? I've seen that before, is that a common feature of saint paintings?

Aug. 09 2011 01:24 PM

The gigapixel image is astonishing. For example, descriptions of the painting refer to evidence of stigmata on St. Francis's foot -- something now invisible to viewers because of abrasive damage or alterations over time. You can see the evidence in the gigapixel image. Wow.

You can zoom in on the shepherd in the mid-ground.

The sun seems low to the left, given the length of St. Francis's shadow -- dawn in the East? St. Francis facing toward Jerusalem?

Many thanks.

Aug. 09 2011 01:21 PM
Amy from Manhattan

I'm curious--why would a rabbit be an allusion to Moses?

Aug. 09 2011 01:20 PM
CL from NYC

This is an astonishing work of art. I would argue that it is the greatest Renaissance painting in US. Every New Yorker should see it.

Aug. 09 2011 01:18 PM
Jeremy from New York

Garry Wills has a very interesting discussion of this painting in his book Venice: Lion City. He points out, although I don't think it is his original insight, the similarity in the solidity of the saint's robes and the towers of the city in the background. Contrast that solidity with the way the rocks in the foreground are painted as if they are flowing.

Aug. 09 2011 01:13 PM

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