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First, the Catechism instructs us in choosing sacred, or liturgical art, that such art is appropriate if it principally represents Christ (CCC 1159), expresses the same Gospel message as Scripture (CCC 1160), glorifies Christ through the representation of individual saints who have, in Him, revealed man as an image or likeness of God (CCC 1161), and moves us to contemplation in harmony with the Word of God and hymns of the Liturgy (CCC 1162). This image of St. Francis answers to its high calling at every point.
St. Francis’ miraculous reception of the stigmata – participation in the very wounds of Christ – is represented in both the central and in a side image which emphasizes his perfect receptivity to the will of God. Scripture’s injunctions to serve the poor (Proverbs 19:17, Acts 20:35, and many more) and neglect not good works (1 John 3: 17-18, James 2:14-26) are evoked in three side panels, in which St. Francis humbly serves the poor. St. Francis, casting out the demons of Arezzo, as depicted in another side panel, is the very image of Christ glorified and of man raised to share in Christ’s own dominion over the angelic realm. (Hebrews 1:4, Lk 10:17-19, Eph 2:6, Mt 10:1, Mk 3:14)
The image of St. Francis preaching to the birds on the left of the central figure leads us to contemplation of Christ’s Redemption of all Creation through His restoration of mankind (Romans 8:19-22) and reminds us of St. Francis’ own hymn of Creation – the Canticle that praises God in all created things in a voice that is reminiscent of the Liturgy of the Hours, where Daniel’s canticle of praise is so frequently featured (Daniel 3:57-88). This small moment in the life of the saint, offered, literally, ‘on the altar of Christ’ in union with the Sacrifice and Resurrection in which all things are redeemed and restored, is lifted to its true significance. Every aspect of St. Francis’ life is shown here in its true light – as offered to Christ – and thus illuminates the sense in which every believer brings the offering of his own being to God in the celebration of each Mass. “The presentation of the offerings at the altar takes up the gesture of Melchizedek and commits the Creator’s gifts into the hands of Christ who, in his sacrifice, brings to perfection all human attempts to offer sacrifices.” (CCC 1350)
Turning to the criteria given by Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) in The Spirit of the Liturgy, we are further confirmed in our sense that this painting is an exemplary piece of liturgical art. The Cardinal’s five principles are:
1) “Images of beauty, in which the mystery of the invisible God becomes visible, are an essential part of Christian worship.” 2) Images of salvation history, from the Bible and from the history of the saints “have pride of place in sacred art.” 3)Sacred images must point to “the inner unity of God’s action” and “to the sacraments,” and emphasize the Paschal Mystery, inasmuch as Christ is represented, in three aspects: Christ Crucified, Risen, and as “the One who will come again and who her and now hiddenly reigns over all.” 4) Sacred art must be the fruit of contemplation and prayer “undertaken in communion with the seeing faith of the Church.” and 5) Sacred art must not (indeed, cannot) come “from an isolated subjectivity,” but emerges from the submission, by the artist, of his skill and freedom to “the logos of things” – reality as understood through the norms and doctrines of the Church, as opposed to that which is merely apprehensible to the senses. The inward formation of the artist by the Church, and his openness “to the ‘we’” of the Body of Christ protects his work from “imprisoning man” in art that does not do justice to the fullness of Truth.
The St. Francis altarpiece, again, gets high marks for liturgical use according to Cardinal Ratzinger’s criteria. Offering, as it does, beautiful images from the life of a saint, and as far as a viewer can tell, painted by an artist who is prayerfully formed by and submissive to received Catholic doctrine, this painting succeeds on the (perhaps most important) level of pointing to the Paschal Mystery. Though it is not an icon of Christ himself, the painting evokes the Passion through the stigmata of St. Francis, the Risen Christ through the Saint’s ministry to the poor, and the glorified Christ in the two images of Creation fulfilled in Christ’s perfect dominion: the birds’ docility toward, and the flight of demons at the Word of God. The Holy Bible in St. Francis’ hands (the ‘logos of things’ per Cardinal Ratzinger) speaks of his and of the artist’s sense of the primacy of the Word of God, as revealed in Scripture. The full deposit of Faith – the unity of these Scriptures with the Tradition of the Church of Christ – is made explicit by the juxtaposition of the Bible with the wound-marked hand of St. Francis.
The concern of the artist for the ecclesial ‘we’ is evident in his invitation to the congregation to place their gifts on the altar, following the example of St. Francis, whose life and works – like ours – makes sense only in the position of an offering to Christ, and in his placement of St. Francis’ vows of poverty, chastity and obedience (symbolized by the three knots of his rope girdle) directly in line with the elevation of the Host. Maryvale’s Art, Beauty and Inspiration coursebook teaches that, “Paintings for altar pieces receive their full meaning, sense and purpose, then, not from what is depicted, but from the celebration of Mass….One way of discerning whether a painting may have been an altar piece is to see what is placed in the centre-front area of the painting. This is an extremely important part of a painting. For an altar piece it may be left relatively empty because of the head and shoulders of the priest standing here before it, and, of course, because of the elevation of the sacred host at the consecration.” (Module 2 Coursebook, pg.75)
If we ask the question, as suggested, “…into or towards what, in the painting, is the host being elevated?” we find the further element of liturgical action has been accommodated by Berlinghieri in this painting. It’s as though, at the elevation of the Blessed Sacrament, this entire piece would come to life. In the person of Christ, we believers are raised up through the chastity, poverty, and obedience of discipleship toward the sanctity of sainthood, and toward participation in the redemptive suffering of Christ. In the unity of received doctrine – the revelation of the Word of God – we are formed into His very Body for the sake of the coming of the Kingdom into this world – through our receptivity to Him, our proclamation of His message, and our works.
Clearly, this artist aims to raise our sites toward an eternal destiny that is not limited to what we can apprehend through our natural senses. He accomplishes well the task of creating art that truly serves the Liturgy, and by extension operates to draw all men toward Christ.