Saint Francis, one of Italy’s two patron saints (the other being St Catherine of Siena), was born in Assisi in the winter of AD 1181-82, to a wealthy family of silk merchants. He led a boisterous life, with fine clothes and rich friends, until his early 20s when, after a mystical vision of Christ, he abandoned the worldly life and renounced his patrimony. He became a mendicant wanderer, seeking funds to restore the chapel of San Damiano near Assisi; then, in 1210, he had his growing group of acolytes recognised as an order by Pope Innocent III. Francis travelled widely, preaching his rule of poverty, and, having handed over governance of the order, went in September 1224 on a 40-day fast on Mount Averna in Umbria. While there, he had another vision, of a crucifix borne by a six-winged seraph. This angel marked him with the stigmata, the five wounds of Christ.
For the last two years of his life, Francis lived near Assisi, composing in the summer of 1225 his famous Cantico di frate sole, the Hymn to Brother Sun, in which Francis thanked God for all of creation. In 1979, Pope John Paul II proclaimed him the patron saint of ecology, and the present Pope has taken Francis as his regnal name. Within two years of his death, Francis had been canonised by Pope Gregory IX, who laid the foundation stone for the great basilica in Assisi where St Francis was buried in 1230, and initiated a pilgrimage industry that has continued and grown to this day.
Pilgrims want souvenirs, and a wide range of merchandise is on offer in and around Assisi, from tiny replicas of the saint’s own crucifix hanging in the basilica, to statues of him preaching to the birds or taming the Wolf of Gubbio. In the later Middle Ages, one of the most common forms of souvenir was the pottery bowl or plate, painted with an image of the saint. The smallest and cheapest, a simple bowl (coppa) or jug a few centimetres across, had room for just a kneeling St Francis in front of a tall cross, his figure too small in most cases for the stigmata to be shown. The largest ceramics were piatti di pompa, display plates up to 50cm in diameter, sometimes larger, and not intended for culinary use, allowing for more detailed and varied subject matter.
One nearby town that latched on to this high-end trade was Deruta, some 15km downstream from Assisi on the Chiascio river, on a route leading directly up to the pilgrimage centre from Rome. The local clay was excellent, and pottery production began in the 13th century, reaching its artistic peak in the 15th and 16th centuries with the polychrome lustreware maiolica technique (which continues today). The Masci family titled themselves laboreria maiolicata, indicating that they were maiolica producers, which seems to have been the basis for their fame and fortune; the Mancini family later succeeded them in prominence. Among the most popular designs were belle donne, idealised female portraits, accompanied by an uplifting motto. Episodes from Graeco-Roman and other narratives were reproduced on istoriato plates. The cities of Gubbio and Urbino, north of Assisi, also had famous and distinctive maiolica traditions, but were further from the pilgrimage attractions: Deruta was in a splendid position to exploit this demand by using Franciscan motifs.
One of the finest Derutese piatti di pompa is now in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and was once owned by the press magnate William Randolph Hearst (the model for Citizen Kane). Dating to around 1500-1540 and more than 40cm in diameter, it has a broad band of floral ornament typical of Deruta on the lip and a narrow band of ribbon-like guilloche around a central tondo. This shows a kneeling St Francis in front of his hermitage on Mount Averna in a stony, hummocky landscape. In the sky above him floats the Seraphic Crucifix. From Christ’s wounds, lines radiate to the corresponding points on Francis’s hands, feet, and body, conferring the stigmata. There are as yet no wounds on Francis – the event is literally in progress as we witness it.
This is the standard template for depicting the stigmatisation. The model derives from Giotto’s fresco of 1297-1300 in the upper basilica at Assisi, and is also seen in his Bardi Chapel murals in Santa Croce, Florence, of c.1325, and in numerous panel or canvas paintings (one of the earliest, by Giotto of c.1295-1300, is now in the Louvre). In the limited space of the tondo, the scene is stripped to its essentials: the saint, the seraph, the place. Other usual features, such as the presence of his acolyte Brother Leo, are omitted: the story was sufficiently well known.
More unusual – possibly unique – is a second piatto di pompa (now in the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, USA) of almost exactly the same size, with a similarly conceived floral border and guilloche. The style of the two piatti is so close that they may well be by the same artist. The Toledo tondo has a scene similar in structure, but dramatically different in detail, to the LACMA plate. St Francis kneels in an identical pose and monastic habit, in front of a very similar oratory, but in a luxuriant rather than desert landscape. In the background, however, is a walled town; and in the sky, replacing the Seraphic Crucifix, is a large and benevolent Sun.
What is going on? From the clear stigmata – reddish spots on the palms of his hands and sides of his feet – it is an event later than when he received them in September 1224. The salient differences are the presence of the walled town in the background, and the replacement of the Seraphic Crucifix by the personified Sun.
In fact, what we can see in this unusual piatto is the next major occurrence in the canonical life of St Francis: the composition of the Cantico di frate sole. Francis composed the verse at San Damiano in July 1225. The walled city we see in the background is nearby Assisi. A famed part of the Laudes creaturarum (Praise of the Creatures), the Cantico says:
Laudato sie, mi’Signore, cum fructe le tue creature
Spezialmente messor lo frate sole,
Lo quale e iorno, et allumini noi per lui.
Et ellu e bellu e radiante cum grand splendore;
De te, Altissimo, porta significazione
Be praised, my Lord, through all that you created,
Especially the lord Brother Sun,
Who is the day, and you bring us light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant with much splendour;
Of you, O most high, it bears witness
The Toledo piatto is one of very few depictions of St Francis intoning these verses in any medium. Images of the episode are vanishingly rare partly because the event itself is more difficult to portray than the visceral drama of the stigmatisation, and partly because composing and reciting a poem is an intrinsically less dramatic thing. One of the few proposed examples is Giovanni Bellini’s St Francis in Ecstasy in the Frick Collection in New York, dating to around 1480. This was the guess of the late Kenneth Clark, author of Civilisation and former Director of the National Gallery in London. But there is ambiguity, because Bellini does not show the sun itself, which is merely adumbrated by light from outside the picture frame bending the foliage of a laurel tree by its force; and because Francis does not have visible stigmata (though his palms face outwards, as in other stigmatisation scenes). Scholars are divided about the Bellini painting. In his book on the artist some 50 years ago, Giles Robertson ingeniously interprets the painting as melding the two events together – the light is simultaneously the radiance of Christ conferring the stigmata and a visualisation of the composition of the Cantico where ‘the function of the seraph has actually been taken over by the sun itself’.
There is another possible reason why this particular Franciscan image is so rare. The scarcity of the scene may reflect the tastes of the pilgrims, who preferred the drama of the stigmatisation or the more mundane nature of St Francis at prayer or preaching to the animals over the Cantico composition. So, why does the unusual image appear on this splendid example in Toledo? The personified Sun comes from secular rather than religious iconography, like most of the designs on piatti di pompa. The Toledo plate, then, may have been specially commissioned by a client more deeply steeped in the saint’s life-history or by one more attuned to Renaissance humanism, not just the Catholic faith. Who she or he was sadly remains beyond our reach, but the plate they once owned shows the subtle but effective adaptation of conventional Franciscan imagery and the popularity of St Francis – in various episodes from his life – on maiolica pilgrimage memorabilia.
Italian Renaissance Ceramics: a catalogue of the British Museum Collection, by Dora Thornton and Timothy Wilson. British Museum Press, 2009.
In a New Light: Giovanni Bellini’s St Francis in the desert, by Susanah Rutherglen and Charlotte Hale. The Frick Collection, New York, 2015.
‘Brother Sun: unusual Franciscan iconography on a Derutese piatto di pompa’, by Norman Hammond, in Source: Notes in the History of Art, Vol. 26, No. 1, Fall 2006.
Norman Hammond is a Senior Fellow of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at Cambridge University, and Archaeology Correspondent of The Times since 1967.