The cover of the month
My sisters, the swallows by Pierre-Marie Dumont
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.