Giotto - St. Francis Preaches to the Birds.

This image is from Christus Rex. Click on it to see a larger version.

The life of St. Francis of Assisi has had endless fascination for people. He came from a well off family but renounced money, inheritance, and even respect to embrace poverty, prayer and obedience to God. He became a beggar who inspired a legion of others. For a summary of some highlights from St. Francis' life see below. The painting depicts a story about St. Francis's life which would be familiar to Giotto's audience.

The first thing to look at is the background. It appears blue to blue green, indistinct, like a hill obscured by haze. clearly this is a natural setting, but the rest of the earth is not important. We are made to concentrate on Francis and his birds. Francis' headFrancis has an expression of fierce concentration, as he blocks out other concerns except the birds. It is as if the rest of the world is not listening to God's message, so he is concentrating on those who are listening. However, it is also his goal to commission the birds to praise God from the four corners of the world. In a sense it is like Jesus, who concentrated effort on the Apostles who would then go out to preach the word themselves.

Giotto has given Francis a halo, which is a common indication of sanctity. "Halos are the visual expression of a supernatural light, a mystical force... [H]alos form a symbolic crown. In ancient art halos identified deities. In their circular shapes, their lightness and brightness, they resemble the sun.... The halo is the attribute of sanctity in Christian art, and identifies important personages." G.G.Sill, A Handbook of Symbols in Christian Art, Touchstone, p. 59.

The bald spot on Francis's head is not male pattern baldness. It is a tonsure, which is a deliberate removing of hair from the top of the head. Francis and his followers where received into the clerical state by the Pope, and permitted to preach repentance (but not doctrine). The first ordination a person could receive was Tonsure. It was the first of the minor orders and functioned as a reception into the clerical state. Major orders are deaconite, priesthood, and episcopacy. There would have been legal consequences because a cleric would be subject to church law and courts rather than those of the state.


Always look at the hands, because they are often as expressive as the face. Here one hand is down and open. It is the "receiving" hand which is open and welcoming. It shows a peaceful trust that welcomes the birds presence but also their attention. The other hand is raised with three fingers fully extended and the last two folded. This is symbolic of the Trinity, who are three persons in one divine nature. It is the typical way a priest would hold his hand to make a sign of the cross in blessing. The arm could be suspended in mid-motion as Francis was making a sign of the cross in blessing over the birds. (I don't know why the hands are surrounded by black, but the silhouette immediately draws a person's attention to the hands.)

One remarkable thing about these birds is their willingness to stay calm near a human being. Wild birds rarely let people approach them closely. Perhaps wisely, they lack any trust in our good will. These birds allow Francis to come close, so close that his garments touch them. They trust this human being more than any other. The artist seems to be saying, along with the legend, that if the very birds of the air can trust Francis so can you. After all, did Jesus not say we should "look at" and thus learn from the "birds of the air"?

Matt. 6:26-34. "Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you - [O] you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?' For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today." NRSV.

Who would the birds represent? These particular birds are not necessarily the largest, strongest, fiercest, or most beautiful. However, they were present in large numbers. Would they not represent the multitude of ordinary people who hunger for the Word of God? It is not the rich and powerful who would come out in the hundreds to listen to God's wisdom. Francis's message of poverty and gentleness would not be received by them, but it might be received by ordinary people, just as the birds willingly received it. Francis says to be thankful for what God has given. It is enough.

All Francis asks of the birds is that they do what God has created them to do. While they live they sing. Their song is their praise to God. This is true of us too. God has given us our talents and abilities. He has called us to use them in His service and in praise of Him; we are simply to do what we are good at, but to do it in Him and for Him and for the sake of those He loves.

St. Francis's commitment to poverty is evident by looking at his feet and those of his companion. the companion is wearing sandals, but Francis is barefoot. The sandals make sense because they had to walk wherever they went. It would be tough even on feet hardened by a lifetime of walking. Giotto's Francis does not even allow himself this simple "luxury". This would not only be a way to express poverty, but also a form of mortification or penance.

The CompanionThe companion is an interesting contrast. (It is difficult to determine gender. The figure looks like a nun but the legend says that the original story came from a man, Brother Masseo.) He has no halo so is not yet at the same spiritual level as Francis. His expression in this reduced detail is obscure, but in the larger version he seems to be stern, not smiling. Perhaps he is not sure what to make of all of this. His right hand is not held in a welcoming or blessing pose. It looks like he is "warding off", pushing away, or shielding himself from what's happening. Could he represent those committed Christians who never-the-less fear the action of God when it is not what they expect, when it is not something they understand, and when it is not "safe"? Would this be like the more secular churchmen found in any denomination or century? His left hand is gripping the rope at his waist. (I can't tell if it is a rosary.) Could this be prayer, or nervousness? Gripping something tightly is a common response to tension. If prayer, is he praying for Francis's success, or out of his own nervousness and fear? (People should recall that they need to pray for their minister's success in preaching and service. This prayer can have a tremendously positive effect. You may not be able to go into ministry yourself, or do much in active service to people in need, but you can pray for the success of those who are called to this by Christ and are trying to God's work.)

For further meditation with art, you can see Renunciation of Wealth, the Manger of Greccio, The Ecstasy of St. Francis, the Stigmata, the Lamentations of the Claretian Nuns at Francis's death, as well as many other Giotto paintings at St. Francis I and St. Francis II, which are part of Christus Rex's Giotto site.

Other paintings about Francis include Bellini's Francis in the Desert at Mark Harden's Artchive, and Caravaggio's Francis in Ecstasy at Olga's Gallery.

Be sure to look at the list of images at the Franciscan Archive.

You can also use the prayers of St. Francis and find in them sources of meditation.

I am not an art critic or artist. I just invite others to think about the message presented by the work of art and then in meditation reflect on its application in your life. In addition, use your imagination. Put yourself in the position of one of the people depicted and feel what they feel. A painting may have tremendous spiritual meaning for you whether or not the artist intended it, or the art critics would agree. If you find meaning, work with that meaning thanking God.

This image by Giotto is used with permission of Christus Rex. Images are displayed here for non-profit religious and educational purposes only. No other use is intended or permitted. The text is by the Rev. Roger J. Smith, unless attributed to someone else, and is presented "as is". ©1997, Roger J. Smith. Comments can be sent to him.

"The Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyrighted 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and are used by permission. All rights reserved."

Papal Documents on St. Francis of Assisi:
Gregory IX: Mira Circa Nos (1228) On the Canonization of St. Francis of Assisi, and
Leo XIII: Auspicato Concessum (1882) On St. Francis of Assisi. In addition, a large number of historical documents are linked to the Franciscan Archieve.

Some material from the life of St. Francis of Assisi.
"[W]hilst Francis was praying before an ancient crucifix in the forsaken wayside chapel of St. Damian's below the town, he heard a voice saying: "Go, Francis, and repair my house, which as you see is falling into ruin." Taking this behest literally, as referring to the ruinous church wherein he knelt, Francis went to his father's shop, impulsively bundled together a load of coloured drapery, and mounting his horse hastened to Foligno, then a mart of some importance, and there sold both horse and stuff to procure the money needful for the restoration of St. Damian's."
Francis had taken some of his Father's gold to give to the priest at St. Damian's for the church's repair, but his Father was stingy and got his money back. He caught Francis beat him and dragged him home where he lock him in a closet. Francis was released by his mother so the Father took his son to the city council and "sought also to force his son to forego his inheritance. This Francis was only too eager to do he declared, however, that since he had entered the service of God he was no longer under civil jurisdiction. Having therefore been taken before the bishop, Francis stripped himself of the very clothes he wore, and gave them to his father, saying: 'Hitherto I have called you my father on earth; henceforth I desire to say only 'Our Father who art in Heaven.'" Francis began wandering in the hills in prayer, and working to restore run down chapels.
"On a certain morning in 1208, probably 24 February, Francis was hearing Mass in the chapel of St. Mary of the Angels, near which he had then built himself a hut; the Gospel of the day told how the disciples of
Christ were to possess neither gold nor silver, nor scrip for their journey, nor two coats, nor shoes, nor a
staff, and that they were to exhort sinners to repentance and announce the Kingdom of God. Francis took
these words as if spoken directly to himself, and so soon as Mass was over threw away the poor fragment
left him of the world's goods, his shoes, cloak, pilgrim staff, and empty wallet. At last he had found his
vocation. Having obtained a coarse woolen tunic of "beast colour", the dress then worn by the poorest
Umbrian peasants, and tied it round him with a knotted rope, Francis went forth at once exhorting the
people of the country-side to penance, brotherly love, and peace." (Emphasis added.)
When Francis first began to attract followers, "[i]n true spirit of religious enthusiasm, Francis repaired to the church of St. Nicholas and sought to learn God's will in their regard by thrice opening at random the book of the Gospels on the altar. Each time it opened at passages where Christ told His disciples to leave all things and follow Him. 'This shall be our rule of life', exclaimed Francis, and led his companions to the public square, where they forthwith gave away all their belongings to the poor. After this they procured rough habits like that of Francis, and built themselves small huts near his..."
Francis decided on a rule of life for he and his followers, and then went to Rome to obtain the Pope's approval. "[T]he pope recalled the saint whose first overtures he had, as it appears, somewhat rudely rejected. Moreover, in site of the sinister predictions of others in the Sacred College, who regarded the mode of life proposed by Francis as unsafe and impracticable, Innocent, moved it is said by a dream in which he beheld the Poor Man of Assisi upholding the tottering Lateran, gave a verbal sanction to the rule submitted by Francis and granted the saint and his companions leave to preach repentance everywhere. Before leaving Rome they all received the ecclesiastical tonsure, Francis himself being ordained deacon later on." The Lateran was the Pope's parish and so it sybolized the entire roman Catholic church. It has been suggested that if St. Francis had not come at this time, and helped the chruch to reform, the Reformation could have occured centuries early. The Pope's dream certainly fits well with the message of the voice Francis heard at St. Damian's.
"[T]he Friars Minor went forth two by two exhorting the people of the surrounding country. Like children "careless of the day", they wandered from place to place singing in their joy, and calling themselves the Lord's minstrels. The wide world was their cloister; sleeping in haylofts, grottos, or church porches, they toiled with the labourers in the fields, and when none gave them work they would beg. In a short while Francis and his companions gained an immense influence, and men of different grades of life and ways of thought flocked to the order."
"It was during Christmastide of this year (1223) that the saint conceived the idea of celebrating the Nativity
"in a new manner", by reproducing in a church at Greccio the" nativity scene" of Bethlehem, and he has thus come to be regarded as having inaugurated the population devotion of the Crib."
"It was on or about the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (14 September [1224]) while praying on the mountainside, that he beheld the marvellous vision of the seraph, as a sequel of which there appeared on his body the visible marks of the five wounds of the Crucified..."
St. Francis died on "Saturday evening, 3 October, 1226, Francis being then in the forty-fifth year of his age, and the twentieth from his perfect conversion to Christ." Francis was canonized... by Gregory IX, 16 July, 1228" only two years after his death.
All the text qutoted above is from the article on St. Francis at the New Advent Supersite.
For an extensive list of material on Francis and Franciscan's see the Franciscan Exerience and the Franciscan Cyberspot with links to sites in the Holy Land.
You can also look at the OFM Home Page.

The legend of preaching to the birds.
This story is in the Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi, chapter 16.
St Francis lifted up his eyes, and saw on some trees by the wayside a great multitude of birds; and being much surprised, he said to his companions, "Wait for me here by the way, whilst I go and preach to my birds which were on the ground, and suddenly all those also on the trees came round him, and all listened
while St Francis preached to them, and did not fly away until he had given them his blessing. And Brother
Masseo related afterwards to Brother James of Massa how St Francis went among them and even touched
them with his garments, and how none of them moved. Now the substance of the sermon was this: "My
little sisters the birds, ye owe much to God, your Creator, and ye ought to sing his praise at all times and in all places, because he has given you liberty to fly about into all places; and though ye neither spin nor sew, he has given you a twofold and a threefold clothing for yourselves and for your offspring. Two of all your species he sent into the Ark with Noe that you might not be lost to the world; besides which, he feeds you, though ye neither sow nor reap. He has given you fountains and rivers to quench your thirst, mountains and valleys in which to take refuge, and trees in which to build your nests; so that your Creator loves you much, having thus favoured you with such bounties. Beware, my little sisters, of the sin of ingratitude, and study always to give praise to God." As he said these words, all the birds began to open their beaks, to stretch their necks, to spread their wings and reverently to bow their heads to the ground, endeavouring by their motions and by their songs to manifest their joy to St Francis. And the saint rejoiced with them. He wondered to see such a multitude of birds, and was charmed with their beautiful variety, with their attention and familiarity, for all which he devoutly gave thanks to the Creator. Having finished his sermon, St Francis made the sign of the cross, and gave them leave to fly away. Then all those birds rose up into the air, singing most sweetly; and, following the sign of the cross, which St Francis had made, they divided themselves into four companies. One company flew towards the east, another towards the west, one towards the south, and one towards the north; each company as it went singing most wonderfully; signifying thereby, that as St Francis, the bearer of the Cross of Christ, had preached to them and made upon them the sign of the cross, after which they had divided among themselves the four parts of the world, so the preaching of the Cross of Christ, renewed by St Francis, would be carried by him and by his brethren over all the world, and that the humble friars, like little birds, should posses nothing in this world, but should cast all the care of their lives on the providence of God.
St. Francis of Assisi found at St. Anthony Messenger Press.
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