Giotto - St. Francis
Preaches to the Birds.
This image is from Christus
Rex. Click on it to see a larger
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
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.
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.
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
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
Be sure to look at the list of images at the Franciscan
You can also use the prayers
of St. Francis and find in them sources of
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
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:
IX: Mira Circa Nos (1228) On the Canonization of St. Francis of Assisi,
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 ) 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
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
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
- 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
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