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St Francis: Radical Kinship

Throughout this project we are exploring our kinship with the more-than-human world and with fellow-humans. Here we celebrate the saint who radically re-imagined our relationship with the earth and the cosmos. We do this in the context of the National Gallery exhibition St. Francis of Assisi (ends 30 July) and two related events taking place at St. James’s.

St Francis wears a brown habit and is preaching to a flock of birds with outstretched hands. Another friar stands behind him. There are trees on blue background.

In the early Church and through the Middle Ages, there was a belief that every created being could praise God in its own distinctive way. But there were strict hierarchies, laid out in a structure known as the Great Chain of Being. This Chain descended from God and the angels to humankind, then through the ranked animals, birds and fish down to plants and minerals. And there were hierarchies within the hierarchies. Just as the king was designated by God to rule other humans, so the lion was the highest among animals and the dolphin superior to all other fish.

And then, in the early thirteen century, a wandering friar challenges all that by saying ‘Sister Water’; ‘Brother Wolf’ . Instead of placing humankind on a God-ordained pinnacle above the rest of Creation, he is entering into a new relationship with the lives around him. To affirm kinship – motherhood, sisterhood, brotherhood – is to enter into new possibilities of mutuality, respect and love. 

The image is St. Francis (detail), by Margaritone d’Arezzo (1290)

An illustration of St Francis wearing a brown habit with the hood up. He looks directly at the viewer with one hand raised showing his stigmata and holder a brightly coloured book in the other.
The text reads be praised, My Lord, through all your creatures, especially through My Lord Brother Sun, who brings the day. The text is white on a brown background.

Francis affirmed this kinship in engaging and radical ways. His biographer Thomas de Celano gives an account of Francis interrupting his journey to preach to the birds, celebrating their distinctive avian qualities as he urged them to praise God. 

After this, he began to preach to animals, reptiles and ‘Insensible creatures’. Stories soon grew around this charismatic figure. In the National Gallery exhibition, a painting by Sassetta depicts his encounter with the wolf who had terrorised the town of Gubbio. The wolf is placing its right paw in the hand of the saint, who promises that the animal will be forgiven and fed by the townsfolk.

The image is the oldest surviving depiction of St Francis is a fresco near the entrance of the Benedictine abbey of Subiaco, painted between 1228 -1229.

A drawing of St Francis wearing a brown habit with the hood up. His right hand is held across his body. The painting has a dark green background and the paint is flacking showing the signs of its age.
The text reads Praised by you, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars, in heaven, you formed them clear and precious and beautiful. The text is white on a brown background.

It is significant that Francis was a poet. He brought a fresh and original vision, a creative empathy to everything he experienced, whether it was interpreting the Gospels or talking to a flock of birds.

The image is St Francis and the Wolf by Michael Smither, (2007-2018)

A modern painting of St Francis. He is sitting on the ground breaking a bread loaf open. Beside him is a wolf which looks directly at the viewer. There are bones on the ground before them.
The text reads Praised by you, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth, who sustains us and governs us and who produces varied fruits with coloured flowers and herbs. The text is white on a brown background.

The crib is such an essential part of our Christmas that it seems surprising that it did not exist before 1223, when Francis created a ‘living crib’ at the small Italian town of Greccio. Before that the celebration of Christmas belonged to the priests, who conducted a high Latin mass inside a church building.

In contrast, Francis reclaimed the birth of Christ for the original participants: poor people, animals, plants. He placed an ox and an ass round the manger; he imported hay, representing plants, and with his brothers he celebrated the Christmas mass with the local people, who streamed past the crib with lights and candles, creating the light of the star. 

At the end he insisted the hay and the animals should be taken care of because we must care for every created thing, even when we no longer need it. 

The image is St Francis and the Crib, by J R Howley (2011)

A modern painting of St Francis, he is standing next to a crib with his arms widely outstretched. The child Jesus in the crib reaches out towards St Francis.
The text reads Praised be you, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom you light the night and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong. The text is white on a brown background.

It is easy to sentimentalise Francis’s love of birds and animals, and reduce him to what I heard described in a conference as ‘the bird-bath Francis.’ In fact, Francis experienced the earth in her iciest temperatures, her harshest conditions. Travelling through Italy in snow and gales, fasting and praying on the remote mountain peak of La Verna, sleeping on the floor of a small cave, he was finally racked by illness. 

He is said to have composed the Canticle of the Creatures (better known as the Canticle of the Sun) while temporarily recovering from this illness, and to have added the verse about Sister Death when he was blind and close to death. It expresses a holistic faith that absolutely everything, whether gentle or threatening, emanates from the love of God. 

The image is St Francis in the Snow, Greg Tricker.

St Francis is kneeling in the snow besides a white flower. which he is touching. The background of the image is white.

‘It was easy to love God in all that was beautiful. The lessons of deeper knowledge, though, instructed me to embrace God in all things.’

A saying attributed to Francis

The text reads Praised by you, my Lord through our Sister Bodily Death, from whom no living man can escape. The text is white on a brown background.

Pope Francis (the first Pope to choose that name) named his 2015 encyclical Laudate Si after Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Creatures. Subtitled ‘on care of our common home” this encyclical laments environmental degradation and global warming, calling on all people to take ‘swift and unified global action.’ Very much in the spirit of his medieval namesake, Pope Francis states that instead of viewing humanity as having ‘dominion’ over the earth, we must see that all of creation is a “kind of universal family’.

Francis of Assisi understood that indifference or cruelty to our fellow-creatures will soon develop into the abuse of other humans, saying ‘if you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.’ Similarly, Pope Francis has articulated the link between the degradation of the earth and the economic exploitation of poorer countries.

Two hands cradle an earth globe. The hands are photographed in black and white, but the earth is vibrant with greens, blues and swirling white clouds.
The text reads Praise and bless my Lord and give him thanks and serve him with great humility. The text is white on a brown background.

Recent science has taught us that the five of the six elements of our DNA (carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and phosphorus) are made by the stars and released into the cosmos when these stars collapse. We share 50% of our DNA with trees; 70% with slugs and 44 % with honeybees. We are indeed kin to the planets and all other inhabitants of this earth.

Early peoples felt this kinship instinctively and recognised it in their rituals and stories. Francis of Assisi arrived at this insight through prayer and imaginative empathy. It is fascinating that mystics like Francis or Hildegarde of Bingen can sometimes be centuries ahead of the scientists.

The text reads We are indeed kin to the planets and all other inhabitants of this earth. The text is white on a bright blue background showing DNA helixes.

St Francis and the Sow

The bud

stands for all things,

even for those things that don’t flower,

for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;

though sometimes it is necessary

to reteach a thing its loveliness,

to put a hand on its brow

of the flower

and retell it in words and in touch

it is lovely

until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;

as Saint Francis

put his hand on the creased forehead

of the sow, and told her in words and in touch

blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow

began remembering all down her thick length,

from the earthen snout all the way

through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,

from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine

down through the great broken heart

to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering

from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and

blowing beneath them:

the long, perfect loveliness of sow.

The text reads The long, perfect loveliness of sow. The text is white on a blurred background of a sow lying on her sides feeding piglets

Galway Kinnell (2002)

*The quotations are from the ‘Canticle of the Creatures’, a title which I prefer to the better known title ‘Canticle of the Sun’. Composed in Umbrian dialect, it is thought to be one of the first works written in Italian.