Upper Church: the East Wall

















At the side of the rose window: Pentecost (left) Ascension of Christ (right). Above the doors: St Peter, Madonna and Child, St. Paul. 
Franciscan scenes, including those adjacent to the East wall: 13. Nativity scene at Greccio. 14. The miracle of the spring. 15. Preaching to the  birds. 16. The death of the knight of Celano.
  Nativity plays are a familiar event in  infant schools in the U.K., though generally they are more secular than devotional events. According to Bonaventure and others, this recreation at Greccio was the first.  Recreating the nativity is, of course, a powerful symbol of rebirth. It comes as no surprise to find that the small building which is the supposed birthplace of St Francis in Assisi, knows as 'San Francesco Piccolino' is described as having been a stable. As Francis's father was a well-to-do merchant, this is not entirely convincing, and the legend probably dates from the fifteenth century. 
  The two scenes on the East wall itself are central to the story of Francis, and are not part of the chronological sequence of the other Franciscan scenes. The miracle of the spring is described by Bonaventure (VII 12). On a long journey, Francis caused water to gush from the mountainside for a fellow traveller to drink, a direct reference to Moses. Francis was the provider of the water of life in both the real and spiritual sense. 
  Francis preaching to the birds is perhaps the best known of all Franciscan images. It raises many questions. As a layman, Francis was not supposed to preach, but he did so anyway. One suggestion is that the birds represent the poor that Francis preached too; picturing him preaching to people would not be acceptable. 
   Francis is often regarded as a proto-environmentalist, but there is a little more to the story than that.  In The Tree of Life Bonaventure writes about the Crucifixion as a rebirth for humanity, and the metaphor for this is the Cross bursting into bloom, like the tree in the image. Franciscans regarded the life of Francis as offering a second rebirth. 
       The death of the knight at Celano is another somewhat equivocal image. Francis could not preach, nor could he hear deathbed confessions, though here it is fairly clear that the dying knight is seeking Francis's intercession. How to get round the problem? the figure sitting at the table, it is suggested, was originally intended to be a priest (though he seems more interested in his lunch than in the dying knight.)  Evidence put forward for this is that the garment beneath the table is more like that of a priest than a friar. The view is that the rest of the figure has been repainted.
  Throughout all of the images there is concern about Francis doing things he should not be doing. The justification offered is that, while, Francis was not an ordained priest, neither were the prophets with whom he is identified; nor, indeed was Christ. 
  The New Testament images of the Ascension and Pentecost flow on from the middle register of the south wall. The Ascension image brings to mind the Death of Francis in bay 2.  Pentecost is regarded as the birth of the church, with the apostles inspired to preach and spread the gospel. This was Francis's task too. 

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