Friday 26 May 2023

Review: St Francis at the National Gallery

 Earlier this week we were able to visit the exhibition dedicated to St Francis of Assisi, at the National Gallery in London until the end of July 2023. It is well worth visiting, though I would not be as exuberant in my praise of it as some reviewers appear to be. 

Cardinal Vincent Nichols spoke at the reception at the launch of the exhibition. The review at the Guardian website includes several images that will give you a feel for the exhibition. There is also a review at Independent Catholic News. Please look at these sites to gain an idea of the content of the exhibition, before reading my comments below.

My overall view of the exhibition - my "sound byte", if you like - is that it presents St Francis life in a very sympathetic way. So, for example, the several representations of St Francis receiving the stigmata are accompanied by display notes that presume completely the veracity of the stigmata. The room which explores St Francis relation to the natural environment includes a full text of his Canticle of Brother Sun, so that you cannot but recognise the praise expressed through created things is directed towards God. If you knew nothing of St Francis' life before visiting the exhibition, you would leave it with an accurate and sympathetic first knowledge of that life.

Perhaps my favourite parts of the exhibition were Murillo's painting of St Francis embracing Christ, who reaches down to him from the Cross. From the central room of the exhibition, you looked through the arch that gave entry to the room displaying this painting and its central position in the room.  I also liked the way in which the National Gallery's own set of Sasseta's paintings were displayed around the central room of the exhibition, giving a sense of their being displayed in a church which reflects their original intention. A number of the art works displayed show miracles attributed to St Francis, and these are presented in a way that is empathetic to the reality of miraculous events. 

I was not so taken with the exhibition's display of more contemporary representations of St Francis. Antony Gormley's sculpture, which was intended to greet you as you entered the first room of the exhibition, appeared to me, during my visit, to be being generally ignored by visitors. There was nothing particularly attractive about it either in terms of its form or in terms of the materials used. It failed to express the interest in St Francis on the part of the sculptor described in the accompanying object label.

The two series of abstract images in the last room were, if I recall correctly, intended to represent events in the life of St Francis and its themes. They didn't do anything for me, so I essentially ignored them.  A small display on the wall related to a film clip running on a loop in the centre of the room. This display consisted of posters for films featuring St Francis, and a picture of the front cover of a Marvel comic version of his life story. Why full size images of the film posters could not be displayed is a mystery to me - if the Curzon cinema on nearby Shaftesbury Avenue can line the wall of the corridor leading to their rest rooms with full size posters of historic films, surely the National Gallery should be able to display full size posters. The short section of the film loop that I watched was taken from Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1966 film The Hawks and the Sparrows, running silently with the dialogue shown in English subtitles. To really make sense of this, you would need to know something of Pasolini's political background and of the entirety of this particular film - the section referencing St Francis' life is part of a rather different whole. In looking into this after my visit, I have been reminded of another attempt to appropriate St Francis' essentially Christian life to a more secular apologia: Nikos Kazantzakis' novel about the life of St Francis, God's Pauper.

All this having been said, I think the exhibition is well worth a visit for the reasons indicated in my first three paragraphs above. 

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