Artists’ portrayals of St. Francis of Assisi evolved over time - Catholic Courier
Bernie Tomasso welcomes Sister Anne Marie Saphara to talk about her book <em>Before He Became a Bird Bath</em> Sept. 17 at St. Mary Church in Auburn. (Photo by Glenn Gaston)

Bernie Tomasso welcomes Sister Anne Marie Saphara to talk about her book Before He Became a Bird Bath Sept. 17 at St. Mary Church in Auburn. (Photo by Glenn Gaston)

Artists’ portrayals of St. Francis of Assisi evolved over time

The words “St. Francis of Assisi” often conjure in people’s minds the mental image of a garden statue in the saint’s likeness, or a painting of a saintly man surrounded by friendly animals, according to Sister Anne Marie Saphara, OSF.

“Some people, that’s all they know about him,” Sister Saphara said.

St. Francis was a popular subject for artists hundreds of years ago as well, yet those depictions of the saint look vastly different from more contemporary Franciscan-themed works, she said. Sister Saphara delved into some of those differences Sept. 17 during a presentation titled, “Before He Was a Birdbath: St. Francis and the Franciscans in Art and Popular Culture.” The presentation took place in Auburn at St. Mary Parish’s Schrader Hall.

St. Francis of Assisi was ‘ahead of his time,’ is still relevant today

An Italian saint who was canonized in the 13th century, St. Francis of Assisi is responsible for founding the Franciscan orders for men and women religious and laypeople. And although he died nearly 800 years ago, he’s still just as relevant to today’s Catholics as he was just a century after his death, said Sister Saphara, who belongs to the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities based in Syracuse.

“It’s been 800 years, and everyone still knows St. Francis. There are saints that were canonized 100 years ago and nobody knows who they are, but he’s relevant now,” said Sister Saphara, who said she gathered much of the information in her presentation from a course she took at St. Bonaventure University a decade ago with the late Brother David Haack.

St. Francis is the patron saint of animals, so Catholic parishes and schools often host pet blessings on his Oct. 4 feast day. He’s also the patron saint of the environment and ecology, which may explain why he’s still so popular these days, Sister Saphara said.

“With his (focus on) the environment, he was ahead of his time,” she said. “Even this whole idea of minimalism, all he had were the clothes on his back. That was an extreme, but he still set the path, and I think he’s relevant today, and in a different way than 800 years ago.”

Studying older artwork helps Catholics gain deeper understanding of St. Francis

The depictions of St. Francis that were created in the first few centuries after his death had a much different focus than those created more recently, she said. While modern portrayals of St. Francis often depict him surrounded by birds, animals, trees and flowers, in early works, he’s more likely to be shown in a cave with a skull. In fact, it’s fairly common to find skulls prominently featured in depictions of many other saints as well, Sister Saphara noted.

“You’re going to find skulls in a lot of saints’ pictures and holy cards. What it means is, if you look at that skull, you have to realize you’re going to be a skull someday yourself. I think it’s a form of contemplation. It makes you contemplate that you’re going to die someday. It keeps you focused,” she explained.

St. Francis also had the stigmata — or the five wounds of Christ’s crucifixion — on his body, a fact that also features prominently in early depictions of him, she added. Bringing attention to these older works of art helps today’s Catholics gain a more complex and complete understanding of the saint, Sister Saphara said.

“They don’t know about his asceticism, his fasting, his love of God. They just see him with the wolf and the animals and the flowers,” she said. “If I can get them in the door to learn more about him, it’s a start.”

Presentation was sponsored by Secular Franciscans, who strive to live the Gospel in daily life

More than 70 people came through the doors of Schrader Hall at St. Mary Church Sept. 17, eager to learn more about St. Francis and his artistic portrayals throughout the years. Among those in attendance were many Secular Franciscans from the Our Lady of Angels Fraternity based in the Finger Lakes region, according to Bernie Tomasso, a member of the fraternity. The presentation was sponsored by Our Lady of Angels Fraternity, whose members hail from Auburn as well as Ithaca, Moravia, Penn Yan, Geneva and Clyde, said Tomasso, who also chairs justice, peace and creation efforts for Secular Franciscan fraternities in the region.

Secular Franciscans, Tomasso explained, are laypeople who choose to follow a Franciscan way of life, meaning that they strive to live the Gospel in their daily lives. They do not take vows but do complete a three-year period of formation to learn what it means to be a Franciscan and how St. Francis wanted his followers to act, Tomasso added.

Secular Franciscans from the fraternities in Utica and Syracuse also attended the presentation, as did a number of Catholic parishioners from the Auburn area.

“I was intrigued by the artwork. Certainly I got a new insight into him from some of the paintings I’ve not seen before,” Tomasso said.

Tags: Art, Cayuga County News, Feast Days & Saints
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