Sunday, June 10, 2007

Crucifixion Scene: St. Francis and the Stigmata

The crucifixion image for this week is not exactly a crucifixion scene; instead, it is a famous scene in which a winged seraph, risen aloft on the cross, appeared to Saint Francis of Assisi, causing him to bear the stigmata, the marks of the wounds of the crucified Jesus (the Greek word stigma is singular, and stigmata is the Greek plural form of the word). To find out more about stigmata in general, you can read this article at wikipedia.

There are many paintings of Francis receiving the stigmata, and the image I selected here is by Giotto, and can be seen in the Chapel of Santa Croce in Florence (a truly amazing church, a bit off the beaten path - but definitely worth visiting!).

I studied in Italy when I was in graduate school, and I spent a lot of time in churches and museums, gazing at religious art, and also vicariously observing the art through the experiences of the tourists around me - a great way to learn about religious literacy, or the lack of it. In general, American tourists are not able to recognize the saints by their attributes, and they are often baffled to find depictions of stories outside the Bible that they know (such as paintings inspired by the story of Susannah and the Elders or the Book of Tobit, which are not included in Protestant Bibles).

So too with Saint Francis. A friend of mine in Italy told me that when he was looking at this same painting by Giotto of Francis receiving the stigmata, the American tourist standing next to him said loudly, "Oh look, the man is flying a Jesus kite!"

Well, you can see why someone would think that - but that is not what is being depicted in the painting. What the tourist thought were the strings of the kite are instead the visible signs of the "connection" between the cross and the stigmata that marked St. Francis. Giotto, in fact, has taken great care to pose Francis in such a way that we are able to see all five places where Francis was "pricked" (the literal meaning of the word "stigma"), in a symbolic re-creation of the wounds of Jesus, the "Five Holy Wounds," in his hands, feet and side (more about the Holy Wounds at wikipedia).

St. Francis is the first person officially recognized by the Catholic Church to have received the stigmata. After Francis, many other saints and holy people were reported to have received stigmata, including such contemporary figures as "Padre Pio," who is widely revered in Italy today (more about Padre Pio at wikipedia).

One thing that is very intriguing about the vision of Francis is that what he saw was one of the seraphim, the six-winged celestial creatures which became known as the highest order of angels in the Christian hierarchy. Here is another painting by Giotto of this scene which beautifully shows the six-winged seraph (you can read more about the seraphim at wikipedia and at the Jewish Encyclopedia online). You can see that, just as described in the prophet Isaiah's vision of the seraphim, they have two wings to cover their faces, two wings to cover their feet, and two wings with which to fly:

It's worth comparing the vision of Isaiah to the experience of Saint Francis in his visionary encounter with the seraph, since Isaiah, too, was marked by his encounter: "Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged."

Looking at the beautiful seraph here in Giotto's fresco might give us an idea, too, of how to visualize something of the extraordinary vision experienced by Isaiah.


  1. thank you for the wonderful stereotype of Americans at the first painting. It is truly a Christian thing to make fun of each other. I can see you are striving to be an EXCELLENT Christian

  2. Hmmm, I was not making fun of anyone, but recounting a story: there are many people who read the Bible but who are not familiar with the lives of the saints, and they are often puzzled by what they see in the paintings that are based on the lives of the saints. So, you are wrong about the stereotype (it is something that happened to me, that's all); you are wrong about me making fun of anyone (I was not); and I actually don't happen to be a Christian, although how that is any of your business is a mystery to me...


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