UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Form, content and meaning in seven Franciscan altarpieces of the Dugento Gibson, Carol Jayne


Although the fresco cycle of the Upper Church, Assisi represents the fullest early illustration of the legend of St. Francis, there is an earlier tradition of Franciscan iconography which is very important, but often overlooked. It is found in a group of painted wooden altarpieces depicting St. Francis and scenes from his legend. Seven such panels survive from the thirteenth century. They are found in Pescia, Pisa, Pistoia, Florence, Assisi, Rome, and Siena. Together with a known eighth altarpiece which is now lost these paintings form an inter-related group. The Pescia panel is perhaps the most important member of the series. It is the only signed and dated example, a work by Bonaventura Berlinghieri from 1235. It also represents the earliest surviving altarpiece of this type. The other five Tuscan panels all follow the gable-shaped design of Pescia I. The two Umbrian examples are of a different shape but their iconography indicates a clear connection with the Tuscan tradition. All of the altarpieces display a large central figure of St. Francis with small scenes to either side. Ranging from 1235 to the 1290's they date from within a decade of the death of Francis to the end of the Dugento. The seven altarprices have not to date been thoroughly examined as a group. They have been cited as examples of stylistic trends in dugento art, and the Pescia panel has been researched historically because of its importance as a signed and dated work. The only manner in which all seven altarpieces have been investigated together has been an identification of the subjects represented in their side scenes. But no intensive study of these panels as a group which displays the earliest development of Franciscan inocography. Nor has there been a successful attempt to correlate the significance of the subject matter to the environment of thirteenth century Franciscan thought in which they were produced. If the format, function, and iconography of the altarpieces is considered together with early Franciscanism, however, the significance of the art works as exponents of Franciscan doctrine can be suggested. Several aspects of the paintings are valuable indicators of the doctrines lying behind them. First of all, the physical format of the altarpieces is significant because it represented a new form designed specifically for the illustration of Francis and his life. The physical source of this panel format was the storied crucifix. When this derivation is considered in light of the beliefs of Franciscan Joachimism with respect to the role of Francis as a second Christ, it can be seen that even the design of the panels had thematic implications. Thus a consideration of altarpiece design is important. What is illustrated in the side scenes can be established through reference to thirteenth century written accounts of the life of St. Francis which served as the sources for the pictorial motifs. The questions then arise as to why particular scenes were repeatedly chosen for representation and why the choice changed in some of the panels. To understand the significance of the events illustrated, the paintings must be considered within their contemporary environment of early Franciscanism. Placed against the background of developments within the Franciscan Order in the thirteenth century, particularly those events immediately following the death of Francis, what is illustrated on the altar-pieces takes on a new significance. The earliest tradition of subject matter stressed posthumous miracles of St. Francis. These miracles can be related to the canonization of Francis, so that it may be concluded that they were designed as exponents of the sanctity of Francis. This emphasis on miracle scenes was replaced in some of the altarpieces by a growing interest in scenes of the life of Francis, so that by the end of the century no posthumous miracles were included on the panels. These panels were not the only thirteenth century representations of St. Francis. When the central figures are compared to other Dugento depictions of Francis, however, it appears that the altarpieces belong to a distinct tradition with respect to the way in which Francis was interpreted. The reasons for the type of St. Francis shown on the altarpieces can be appreciated when the significance of the scenes' iconography is considered. But an awareness of other trends in Franciscan thought and literature is also important here. The distinct style and attitude of the central figures can be shown to be a result of the thirteenth century views of Francis as expressed by Franciscan Joachimism. Within the context of thirteenth century Franciscan doctrines, the storied retables take on a new significance as meaningful and didactic objects. They also occupy an important postiion as precursors to the legend of St. Francis as it was interpreted in the Assisi frescoes.

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