Montefalco, Umbria

Benozzo Gozzoli

Frescoes in the Capella Magiore of San Francesco

1450-52

Contents

Barbara's Diary

Firenze

San Gimignano

Siena + Galgano

The Landscape

Monte Oliveto

Pienza

Sant'Animo

Arezzo

Assisi

Urbino

Pieve di Romena

Map

 

The cycle of St Francis in Montefalco contains a total of 19 episodes from the life and work of the saint, arranged in a total of 12 pictures and a lost stained glass window. The cycle of pictures extends above the choir stalls along the five walls of the apsidal chapel, in three rows arranged one above the other. In contrast to the customary direction of reading, the series starts at the bottom left with the birth of St Francis and ends at the top right with his Ascension.

This unusual narrative method from the bottom upwards is inconsistent with the method in which wall paintings are produced, for they are always painted from the top downwards. An explanation for the atypical direction of reading is offered by the sequence of the pictures. Starting at the left in the bottom row with the Birth and ending at the outermost lunette field with the Ascension, Benozzo narrates the saint's life as a journey from the earthly to the divine realms. In keeping with this, the sequence of pictures ends in the six vaulted fields with St Francis in glory with five saints from the Franciscan order.

The scene following the Vision of the Church Militant and Triumphant was depicted on a lost stained glass window that originally decorated the narrower central wall of the choir, and which has now been replaced by an unpainted arched window. The theme can be reconstructed thanks to the inscription that has survived beneath the window's slope: QUALITER B. F. IN ECCLESIA SANCTI DAMIANI AUDIVIT CRUCIFIXUM TERDICENTEM SIBI FRANCISCE VADE REPARA DOMUM MEM ET QUIA IAM CADIT VERSA QUANTITATEM PECUNIAE IN QUANDAM FENESTRAM - "How St Francis heard the crucified Christ in the church of San Damiano say three times: Go, and restore my house! And as it is already collapsing, throw an amount of money into the window."

Here, therefore, the praying St Francis was depicted in front of the crucifix in San Damiano, the Vision of San Damiano as it is known. The execution of the scene as a stained glass window was a subtle choice, as St Francis was being requested to throw money in through the church's window.

Finally, 23 medals decorate the narrow strip of wall between the frescoes and the choir stalls. On the north and south walls, in a kind of family tree, 20 Franciscan monks are depicted. They are derived from the "Vitae Crucifixae Jesu Christi" by Ubertino da Casale, dating from 1305. There is space for only three medals on the short strip of wall beneath the window. They show portraits of three famous Florentines: Dante, Giotto and Petrarch.

In about 1290, one of the most extensive cycles on the life of St Francis was created by Giotto in the upper church of San Francesco in Assisi. The relevance of this cycle here is that Benozzo knew it and made use of it without following it continuously. Benozzo differs from his famous model in the choice and sequencing of the scenes. He depicts events from the saint's life. What are missing are the miracles, depicted in Assisi, which Francis worked after his death. However, Benozzo not only broke with the customary chronology, he also proved his inventiveness and independence in the narration of unusual occurrences.