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St Francis of Assisi exhibition opening at National Gallery

One of history’s most revered figures — Saint Francis of Assisi — is the subject of a major exhibition at the National Gallery in London from May 2023. It will be the first ever exhibition to examine the saint in the UK.

The show will feature over 40 works of art from European and American collections. Exceptional pieces by Caravaggio, Murillo, and El Greco will sit alongside more contemporary artworks by Stanley Spencer, Antony Gormley, and more.

The exhibition aims to shed light on how Saint Francis captured the imagination of artists, and how his image has evolved over centuries. It will also examine how his universal appeal has transcended time, continents, and differing religious traditions.

Unusually for an exhibition at such a big institution, it's been curated by the National Gallery’s Director, Dr Gabriele Finaldi. Even more unusually for a show of this scale, it’ll be free to visit.

Sculpture of a faceless figure arms stretched beside them and looking to the sky
Antony Gormley, Untitled (for Francis), 1985. Tate, London © Antony Gormley / photo: Tate

Saint Francis is thought to be one of the holiest men who ever lived. He became a highly esteemed religious figure during his lifetime and was canonised a saint by Pope Gregory IX just two years after his death. He was later named the patron saint of Italy, and in 1979, Pope John Paul II designated him as the patron saint of ecology. He is still venerated by millions around the world.

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But why is the National Gallery dedicating an exhibition to him? Well, because he had a profound effect on the development of Western art. Visitors will get to enjoy artworks spanning more than seven centuries, which will range from medieval painted panels (several predating the earliest paintings in the National Gallery collection) to relic-like objects, manuscripts and contemporary sculpture. There’ll even be a Marvel comic to see.

A real highlight will be a brand new commission from celebrated British sculptor Richard Long. Titled A Walk for Saint Francis it records a series of experiences and sights with words arranged in a simple circular pattern. It will be unveiled when the exhibition opens. There’ll be another new Long work in the show too (although not commissioned for the exhibition) called River Avon Mud Crescent (2023), which turns the humble material mud into a spectacular and symbolically charged artwork.

For those keen to see some really old artworks, the third room of the exhibition is where to head. Here will be some of the very earliest works dedicated to Francis, including drawings by Matthew Paris in the Chronica maiora (on loan from Parker Library, Corpus Christi, Cambridge) which present some of the earliest English depictions of Saint Francis.

St Francis was born to a prosperous family and lived a typical life of a wealthy young man. But events such as his traumatic experience of war, imprisonment, and an extended illness caused him to reassess his life before a mystical vision of Christ in the church of San Damiano and his encounter with a leper were life-changing moments. He renounced all his possessions, inheritance, and patrimony, and embraced the life of a penitent following in the footsteps of Christ, establishing the order of Friars Minor. His popularity as a preacher, peacemaker, a champion of the poor, early environmentalist, and social radical only grew.

Painting showing a man lying in the arms of an angel
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1571—1610. Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy, about 1595—96. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT. © Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art / photo: Allen Phillips

Dr Gabriele Finaldi said that Saint Francis is a “figure of enormous relevance to our times.”

“The history of the images of Saint Francis, is also the history of how Francis has been perceived over time…this exhibition explores some aspects of this fascinating story” Finaldi added.

It’s a busy summer at the National Gallery, as the Assisi exhibition will run at the same time as a show that features much more recent artworks. After Impressionism: Inventing Modern Art looks at how European artists ⁠— most famously, Cezanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh — broke with established tradition in the lead up to the First World War.

Saint Francis of Assisi runs at the National Gallery in London from 6 May until 30 July. Admission is free.


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