Today in the studio Saint Francis went ‘under the brush’. By the time I’d finished painting for the day it was too dark to take a photograph without setting up arc lamps, and I’m too tired for that. I shall do one tomorrow morning. Here instead are two versions of the Saint preaching to the birds as imagined by Giotto.
Getting the Saint right is going to be challenging, not least because I’ve elected to show him naked. Francis was forever giving his clothes away to those less fortunate. His nakedness enables me to explore the vulnerability and the agony of sublimated flesh. I started today with his torso, working with a very limited palette. Lot’s of blue/grey with a hint of rose madder to warm the surface slightly. But he looks cold and pained despite this. I’m looking forward most to working on the legs, mainly because I greatly enjoy expressive feet. (The legacy of all my years as a choreographer!) The Saint’s left foot is twisted in the under-drawing, taking all the tension of his awkward kneeling position. (I intend to make the knees reddened, as though he’s been on them far too long.) But I shall put this off a while yet, saving the best for last. Tomorrow I’ll get to work on his face and hands.
I love Giotto, but I’m not crazy about the vision of a tamed and subdued wildness in these paintings… though they do kind of jibe with my reading of the Little Flowers of Saint Francis. But that was, after all, a hagiography; who’s to say that in fact the birds didn’t swirl around a naked saint as your painting suggests? I rather imagine they must have. In fact, supposing that a story of this kind might have gotten started by someone spying on Francis and applying his own, conventional interpretation to what he saw, I would go further and suggest that he wasn’t really preaching at all, simply conversing.
A couple of the major 18th-century hasidic “saints” of Eastern Europe were also said to have understood the language of the birds and spent time in communion with them. And one thinks of Attar’s “Conference of the Birds,” the Sufi classic. What is it about mystics and birds?
Dave, regarding the ‘tamed and subdued’ wilderness. Giotto was an artist of his time, reflecting the church’s belief in an ordered garden that went to the bad with Adam and Eve’s fall from grace. As a gardener myself there’s charm in the notion of both the ordered and the run-to-the-wild cleverly organised to co-exist. As a consequence Giotto’s calm Saint in a tamed wilderness has a serenity I admire, though I don’t subscribe to it as a painter. Your point taken about the evolution of the legend. Chinese Whispers are undoubtedly how such stories come to pass. And then along comes Giotto to create the visual iconography of the incident that’s been borrowed, imitated and embroidered upon ever since. I’m just another artist putting a spin on it, though I like to think that I’m ‘thinking’ my way into new dramatic possibilities.
your version really re-infuses the saint with life… another legacy of choreography, i’m sure! 🙂