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St. Francis in the Desert, c. 1475-1478
oil and tempera on poplar panel
Panel: 49 1/16 x 55 7/8 in. (124.6 x 142 cm)
Painted area of Panel: 48 7/8 x 55 5/16 in. (124.1 x 140.5 cm)
Henry Clay Frick Bequest
Accession number: 1915.1.03
Living Hall (139)
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The wilderness — or desert — of Mount Alverna is compared in early Franciscan sources to the desert of the Book of Exodus, and Moses and Aaron were seen by the Franciscans as their spiritual ancestors, who were believed to have lived again in their founder. A parallel was seen between the saint’s stigmatization on Mount Alverna and Moses’ communion with God on Mount Horeb. The quivering tree at upper left, shining in the mysterious light, may then be intended to recall not only the Cross but also the burning bush of Moses’ vision at Horeb.
The landscape of Bellini's desert is filled with marvelous details — animals, birds, persons, plants, objects such as the skull and sandals, and strange rock formations — that yielded hidden meanings for those who understood their importance in Franciscan literature. The water trickling from a spout in the stones at left, for example, is compared to the miraculous fountain Moses brought forth from the rocks at Horeb, and the empty sandals behind the barefoot saint recall God's command to Moses to “put off the shoes from thy feet: for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.” It is perhaps this sense of significance in all things as well as the radiant light flowing over the landscape that imbues the painting with such magical appeal.
Source: Art in The Frick Collection: Paintings, Sculpture, Decorative Arts, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996.
Source: Paintings in The Frick Collection: French, Italian and Spanish. Volume II. New York: The Frick Collection, 1968.