Saint Francis of Assisi was one of the most influential Christian figures of the thirteenth century and the founder of a religious order still in existence today. In the year 1224, after withdrawing to La Verna, a hermitage in the Apennine mountains in central Italy, it is alleged that Francis received the stigmata—the wounds inflicted on Christ at the time of the Crucifixion. A great many Italian works from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance depict Francis, a beloved saint and the patron saint of Italy.
Giovanni Bellini signed this large panel on a small paper cartouche in the bottom left corner. The date, patron, and original location of this painting, however, remain unknown. The most persuasive hypothesis is that this work was painted in the late 1470s for the Venetian patrician Zuan Michiel, who may have intended it for the remote church of San Francesco del Deserto, on an island in the Venetian lagoon. By 1525, however, the painting was already hanging in the palace of Taddeo Contarini in Venice.
Francis is shown accepting Christ’s wounds, which are faintly visible on the outstretched palms of his hands. The divine presence is manifest through nature in this painting, and the stigmata are received by Francis through the mystical light descending from the top left corner of the composition.
Bellini depicts a valley in the Venetian countryside, with a small hilltop town in the background and Francis standing by his rustic dwelling. The composition is populated by animals of all types: a heron, a donkey, a rabbit, and a kingfisher. Together with a shepherd and his flock, they appear oblivious to Francis’s spiritual vision. Francis famously lived in communion with the natural world, which he celebrated in his poems and prayers, most famously in his Canticle of Creatures, which includes a compelling commentary on this painting: “Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, especially through my lord Brother Sun, who brings the day; and you give light through him / Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind, and through the air, cloudy and serene, and every kind of weather through which You give sustenance to Your creatures.”