St. Francis in the Desert
oil painting of St. Francis in the Desert
English (US)
Many a non-believer has been struck dumb by the spiritual force of this painting, which may well be Giovanni Bellini's masterpiece, one of the finest works in The Frick Collection, and one of the greatest Renaissance paintings in America. Also it's one of the best preserved. Bellini has depicted St. Francis of Assisi transfixed as he receives the stigmata--the wounds of Christ's crucifixion--as it is believed he did in 1224 during a retreat on Mount Alverna. The wounds from the nails are faintly indicated on his outstretched palms. While this subject was frequently represented in the late fifteenth century, it usually included a depiction of the Crucified Christ emitting rays. Here, however, the miracle is shown occurring through a transcendental light that originates at upper left, brightens the walls of the rock formations and, in the right foreground, casts deep shadows behind the saint and the espaliered limbs that screen his workspace. Reinforcing this effect of an unnatural occurrence, the laurel tree at the upper left glows as if spot lit and bends as though blown by a powerful wind. But the shepherd with his flock, the donkey, and the crane all seem oblivious of what is going on. The landscape is filled with marvelous details--animals, birds, persons, plants, castles, objects such as the skull and sandals, even a cord to ring the saint's “door bell." But most touching of all is the scrap of paper blown against some branches at lower left. It bears the proud signature of the artist.

St. Francis in the Desert

Giovanni Bellini (ca. 1424/35–1516)
Date: ca. 1476–78
Medium: Oil on panel
Panel: 49 1/16 x 55 7/8 in. (124.6 x 142 cm)
Image: 48 7/8 × 55 5/16 in. (124.1 × 140.5 cm)
Credit Line: Henry Clay Frick Bequest
Accession number:1915.1.03
Additional Information
St. Francis of Assisi (1181/82–1226), founder of the Franciscan order, is believed to have received the stigmata — the wounds of Christ's Crucifixion — in 1224 during a retreat on Mount Alverna in the Apennines. It may be this event that Bellini evokes here through the naturalistic yet transcendental imagery of rays of light flooding the foreground from an unseen source at upper left. However, alternative explanations for the scene have been proposed.

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.
Painted on the commission of Giovanni Michiel, Venice. Taddeo Contarini, Venice (1525). Palazzo Corner, Venice (?). Purchased in Italy about 1845 by W. Buchanan. Sir John Murray and others sale, June 19, 1852, Christie’s, Lot 48, sold for £735 to J. Dingwall, Tittenhurst, Sunninghill, Berkshire. Thomas Holloway, apparently acquired with the estate of Tittenhurst. Bequeathed by him to his sister-in-law, Miss Mary Ann Driver (Lady Martin-Holloway). Bought in 1912 from the trustees of Miss Driver by Colnaghi and Obach. Knoedler. Frick, 1915.

Source: Paintings in The Frick Collection: French, Italian and Spanish. Volume II. New York: The Frick Collection, 1968.