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Saint Francis of Assisi and a New Spirit in Italy


Toward the end of the Middle Ages a new spirit and confidence was blossoming. At the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Gothic frescoes capture realism and powerful emotions as never before.

Complete Video Script

[118, Piazza della Signoria, Florence] Toward the end of the Middle Ages a new spirit was blossoming. People were stepping out of medieval darkness. And art was changing with the changing times. Artists now celebrated not just God but the beauty of the created world, done in a style that was more realistic than ever.

[119, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Allegory of Good and Bad Government, 1338-39, Civic Museum, Siena] Nowhere was that new spirit stronger than in Italy. With its close connection to ancient Rome and as the center of the Christian faith, Italy was home to both scholars and pilgrims. Cities buzzed with free trade, strong civic pride, and budding democracy, as they broke free from centuries of feudal rule. As this allegory from the 1300s illustrates, once run-down towns with chaos in the streets were becoming places where the shopping was brisk, construction's booming, students are attentive, and women dance freely in the streets.

[120] In his hometown of Assisi, St. Francis was challenging the corruption of his Church. His values are depicted in art, which decorates the basilica built in his name.

[121] The artists who painted these frescoes employed unprecedented realism to celebrate the life of this down-to-earth man who inspired others and challenged a Church in need of reform. Leading artists of the day, including the groundbreaking artist Giotto, depicted Francis's life story with dignity, raising this humble friar to saintly status.

[122] The artist captures the well-known episode where Francis preaches to the birds. The variety of birds represents nature and the diverse flock of humanity, all worthy of one another's love.

[123] In the compassionate spirit of St. Francis, artists here portrayed powerful emotions as never before. This angel turns her head sadly at the sight of Jesus, while another is in such anguish, she tears at her cheeks in pain. Mary — traditionally shown forever stoic — faints in despair.