All you need to know about Magnificat
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This miniature is from a priceless manuscript dating back to 1478, an illustrated copy of The Life and Miracles of Saint Francis, a work written by Saint Bonaventure († 1274), the Minister General of the Franciscan Order. In 1260 the General Chapter of the Friars Minor in Narbonne asked him to write a hagiography of the man who was nicknamed “the alter Christus” (“the other Christ”). Bonaventure’s concern was to reestablish the original Franciscan spirit. So, about thirty years after Francis’ death, he made an in-depth investigation and visited the places where the saint dwelled to collect all the testimonies of those who knew him.
Here then we have the famous episode of Saint Francis preaching to the birds and blessing them. The setting is springtime, according to some sources on the slopes of Mount Subasio that overhangs Assisi, at the place where the hermitage delle Carceri would be founded, or, according to others, not far from the city of Perugia, about twenty kilometers (12 miles) from Assisi. While the vegetation expresses its joy in renewal with a profusion of flowers, the saint teaches the birds. One of them seems to have descended from heaven and authenticates the scene as a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. Behind Francis stands Brother Masseo, one of his very first disciples.
The artist who produced this miniature was a Poor Clare nun in a convent in Freiburg, Sibilla von Bondorff. Her work expresses an almost childlike simplicity of soul which reflects the delightfully naive outlook that characterizes Franciscan spirituality. The figures in it appear positively beatific, as though they had come back down from heaven to reenact this scene, which is paradisiacal in many respects. The Franciscan dimension of nature reconciled and completely harmonious was admirably captured in music in Scene 6 of the prodigious opera by the French composer Olivier Messiaen († 1992)—Saint François d’Assise.
In truth, the charism of Saint Francis is not as extraordinary as it is said to be. Every simple, loving soul can experience it. And if I may confide in you, I can testify that the woman whom I dearly love converses fluently with the sparrows, and that dialogue with her is in great demand among her sisters the swallows. Blessed the poor of heart: our heavenly Father gave them the little birds of the heaven for confidants.
Saint Francis Preaching to the Birds, illumination from The Life of Saint Francis by Saint Bonaventure, before 1478, Add. 15710, f. 107, The British Library, London, England. © British Library Board. All Rights Reserved / Bridgeman Images.
Pieter de Grebber, born in Haarlem around 1600, was descended from a Catholic family of artists; his father, who worked as a painter, an art dealer, and a craftsman embroiderer, was rather famous. He himself, a painter, draftsman, and engraver, mainly produced religious images. In the middle of the Dutch golden age characterized by the Baroque style, he was one of the pioneers of classicism and also authored a treatise on art. He worked in Copenhagen, Antwerp, Haarlem, and The Hague under the sponsorship of the Prince of Orange. In Haarlem, where he lived from 1634 until his death in 1652, his business prospered. His work showed signs of various influences—such as the Caravaggesque school in Utrecht, Rubens for color and composition, and Rembrandt—yet he developed a more personal style. His paintings are characterized by great clarity and a palette of bright tones.
An episode from the Book of Kings
Elisha refusing gifts from Naaman illustrates a passage from the Book of Kings (2 Kings 5:14-17), in which Naaman, commander of the armies of the King of Aram, being afflicted with leprosy, travels to Israel to be cured, on the advice of his wife’s maidservant. He introduces himself with many recommendations and gifts for the King of Israel, who tears his garments when he notes his inability to work the slightest cure. That is when Elisha appears, for thus Naaman will know that there is a prophet in Israel (2 Kings 5:8). Elisha tells Naaman to bathe seven times in the Jordan, which offends him. Yet the insistence of his servants persuades him, and immediately his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child (2 Kings 5:14). Naaman visits Elisha to shower him with presents, exclaiming: Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel (2 Kings 5:15). But Elisha refuses: As the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will receive none (2 Kings 5:16).
An interpretation in two directions
This is precisely the moment in the account that Pieter de Grebber illustrates. The composition can be interpreted in two directions. Although the scene should be read from left to right, like an ancient bas-relief, it is illumined from right to left, in the opposite direction, in the chiaroscuro effects. In the distance, depicted in shades of gray under a heavy sky, teams of horses drawing a palanquin (a covered litter), escorted by an African guard, recall the pagan world from which Naaman comes. In the foreground, seen from the front and spread out in a row, are the five heads of the protagonists, whose costumes show various shades of beige, Neapolitan yellow, dark red, soft white, pale pink, and brown. Three busy servants; then against a somber background Naaman and Elisha, who turns his back on the others, closing the composition. The light coming from this part of the picture envelops Naaman and the servants. It strikes their hands, foreheads, and sleeves, reviving everything that it touches.
The servant on the left carries a coffer with gold coins; the two others offer a very expensive fabric, in front of Naaman, in the center. Costly coats, jeweled finery, and brocade, are the adornments of these servants, whose hair is combed in the style of that period, with a pointed goatee and a curled mustache, recalling the portraits of the guilds by Rembrandt. Bathed in a diffuse, golden light, the faces express the emotions typical of the elegant endeavors of 17th-century painters. The viewer can distinguish their surprise mixed with admiration at the inviolable honesty of the man of God. The army commander, however, in a broad white turban, cape, and doublet made of silk embroidered with gold, as the painter must have seen in his father’s studio, has a waxen face, shaped quite differently from those of the other figures. Why this detail? Because, according to the passage, his healed flesh was rejuvenated. This is a rebirth taking place in front of our eyes.
Encounter with the divine light
With his back to the main group, Elisha faces an open Bible, turning away from it only to refuse the offerings, his hands in a stereotypical gesture. His uncouth garment, full beard, and hair recall the figures of the apostles in classical sculpture, in contrast with the refined individuals in the main group. His upraised palms collect the light that wells up from the open book: Scripture, his only true wealth. They focus the trajectory of the composition, which is also that of the interior development experienced by Naaman: from the darkened pagan world to his encounter with the divine light.
Through his cure Naaman now has more than health: he has found a reason for living. His weakness is an opening to the grace of God, who fashions him once again; this is why his face seems to be in the process of remodeling. It is a deep transformation, the encounter with Almighty God! Naaman’s words attest to it: Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel (2 Kings 5:15). Loaded down with his own gifts, Naaman will set out again enriched by this holy land where, even more than a physical cure, he received the grace of a purified soul.
Mélina de Courcy
Professor of art history at the Collège des Bernardins in Paris.
Elisha refusing gifts from Naaman (1637), Pieter de Grebber (c. 1600–c. 1652), Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem, The Netherlands. © akg-images / Album / sfgp.