Staff Favorites: Cave Dweller

Oil painting of St. Francis dressed in robes in a rocky landscape with animals and a city in the distance

Bellini's St. Francis in the Desert

I first saw St. Francis in the Desert in early 2019, a few months before I started working at the Frick. I lived in Boston at the time and drove to New York frequently to see my girlfriend. In my mind, the Frick was a pleasure palace with burbling waterworks, a wood-paneled phone booth, a prohibition on children under a certain age, and limestone walls cool to the touch. At its center was the Living Hall, home to the museum’s elder statesmen: grim-faced St. Jerome, bushy-bearded Pietro Aretino, squabbling courtiers Thomas Cromwell and Sir Thomas More, a peacockish noble with a floppy hat, and, of course, St. Francis.

St. Francis: cave dweller, desert wanderer, man on the mountain. This forest was his chapel, the birds his parishioners. A barefoot mendicant who has renounced all worldly pleasures but one: the warmth of sunlight on his face. If you look closely, you can just make out his perforated palms, the miracle of the stigmata. Behind him, in the distance, is the world he left behind: a medieval town with arched gateways and crenellated walls. Now he lives behind a woven willow fence, his only friend a grinning skull that watches him while he works at his desk.

Years ago, my girlfriend and I walked up a mountain near Assisi to a Franciscan hermitage. I remember passing through olive orchards and evergreen forests. A scrim of snow, like a lacy veil, fluttering above a valley. A gnarly tree, glazed with frost, where St. Francis delivered a sermon to the birds. A cave with a bench of rock where he laid his head.

During that trip, we visited the Basilica di San Francesco, in Assisi, to see Giotto’s cycle of frescoes depicting the legend of St. Francis. In one, birds are assembled like schoolchildren at his feet. He is barefoot, girdled by a rope, scissoring his hands as he preaches to the feathery congregation. When we left the basilica, I remember the red light impastoed on the sky. I remember the warmth of sunlight on my face.

Giovanni Bellini (ca. 1424/1435–1516), St. Francis in the Desert, ca. 1476–78. Oil on panel, 49 1/16 x 55 7/8 in. (124.6 x 142 cm)

Staff Favorites is a series of personal reflections by Frick staff members about works of art in the permanent collection. In January 2021, the Frick—in association with DelMonico Books/D.A.P. New York—published a collection of texts in a similar vein by prominent artists, writers, and other cultural figures, each sharing how a work of art at the museum has moved or inspired them. Titled The Sleeve Should Be Illegal & Other Reflections on Art at the Frick, the anthology is made possible by The Arthur F. and Alice E. Adams Charitable Foundation.

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