Each stage of my Italian journey was rich and rewarding. But I was glad I had planned to visit Assisi last of all. The visit to this place of pilgrimage was far more than I had anticipated, an experience which amply rewarded my preparation of reading a life of St Francis before I arrived in the Umbrian town.
There are so many memories of those places which are associated with Francis, either by his presence or by others commemorating his faithful discipleship.I found myself saving for my last day a return to the basilica of San Francesca. On my first day I come to the church as a pilgrim and spent time in the crypt which houses the tomb of Francis and viewing some of the works of art. The second time I visited the church I had downloaded a tour guide to the church on to my iPod and this made me go around slowly, thoughtfully and relatively comprehensively. But even this second time I kept being drawn back to a painting which had stopped me in my tracks on the first visit. There was strictly no photography in the church so this image is off the internet.
Situated in the left transept of the lower church, this is a representation of the deposition, the taking of Jesus’ body down from the cross, painted by Pietro Lorenzetti early in the fourteenth century. Art historians will tell you that it is significant because it is an example of those works which broke through the medieval conventions which had been influenced by Byzantine iconography. Instead of stylized images we have figures who interact with one another, a precursor of the humanism of the Renaissance.
That’s fine as far as it goes. But this work hit me between the eyes – or, rather, touched me at a deep level of common humanity and spiritual devotion. Look at the people who crowd around the dead body of Jesus. Their grief is not just the ending of their dreams, but the loss of someone they love more than they can say. Their grief is tactile, as they cling tenderly to what remains of their Friend and Master. In the foreground, in red, is Mary Magdalene, kissing the foot she had so recently anointed with oil and washed with her tears of repentance. Standing, in blue, is Mary the mother of Jesus gently caressing his cold cheek with her own, just as she may have done when he was a babe in arms. John, the beloved disciple, shares the weight of the corpse – but this is no mere burden to carry, but a beloved friend to be cared for. But the fresco is far more than ‘just’ a portrayal of human grief. It is a representation of human devotion and it drew me into its spiritual response to God’s love in Christ. Here are friends devoted to Jesus. They cradle him lovingly and respectfully. Their tactile affection invites us to respond to this Jesus not simply with the language of faith or the vocabulary of discipleship – but with a movement of the heart, with an adoration born of love and longing.
See from his head, his hands his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown.
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
New book reviews – just click on the books menu tab:
Michael Austin, Explorations in Art, Theology and Imagination (Equinox 2005) go to Books >Austin Explorations
Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation (1949) go to Books > Merton Seeds