Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Four Days in Assisi

Day 4

My walk Sunday morning walk to San Damiano pulls everything into perspective.

It is raining; not hard and driving, but softly, wrapped in fog. Heading downhill I pass Santa Chiara. The white stones dissolve in the mist leaving a field of hazy pink stripes. I go out through the Porta Nuova, another of the city's massive stone gates.

The walk is a series of steeply stepped paths broken by sloping terraces. On both sides, the hills are covered with olive groves and orchards. The route is marked, but not especially clearly, and as soon as I lose sight of the landmarks, I begin to wonder if I'm not on a wild goose chase. Minus the fog, navigating would be easier; this way it unfolds like a dream.

San Damiano is a humble stone church built into the hillside. It is tough enough to climb these slippery stone stairs in the rain; what an ordeal it must have been for Francesco and his brothers to rebuild the church, carrying stone and masonry up and down these hills.

This is where, while he prayed, the crucifix spoke to Francesco, saying "Go, Francesco, and repair my church which is falling into ruin." It is one of the key moments in Francesco's story, panel four in the Upper Basilica. Without question or hesitation, he undertook the charge, gaining brothers as he worked. I think about Tom Sawyer painting the fence; he made it look like fun until he had everyone doing it for him. Francesco's charm was of another order. He worked with such ecstatic conviction that the others were drawn by the simple majesty of his acts.

There is a mass going on inside San Damiano; I am here on a special day. I decide to explore the surrounds, waiting for the mass to end so I can go inside.

The surrounding trees, twisted olive and bare fruit, are playing hide-and-seek with the fog. The rain abates to a fine spray. The only sounds are the birds and the water coursing through stone flumes into collecting pools. A tall wall now surrounds the leeward side of the church, but this is where, in return for their labor, the church allowed Francesco and his brothers to live in huts they built of mud and thatch. They carved a garden into the hillside, they worked and prayed, they perfected the belief which they would take first to the pope (Panel 7) and then out into the world.

The arches of the church itself are low. Other buildings have been added around the original basilica, but the scale is still small. Nothing monumental here. From the portal looking outward, the encircling hills are incredibly fertile, even in winter, on 1 February, the grass is a deep stained-glass emerald. The fruit trees are dry gold but the olive trees are wet and velvety.

Sitting amid this serenity, it occurs to me that everyone has a spirituality of his own which he embraces or denies. Francesco embraced his with such fervor that he was able to convince a Pope to protect his band of brothers with the authority of the church. And he did it his way. His conviction was so absolute it made him brave, fearless even to walk through fire as proof of it (Panel 11); and everything he got, he gave.

A long line of birds sits quietly on a telephone wire above the olive trees, as if waiting for their Sunday sermon, a song of celebration. These fragrant hills echoing with near and distant birds were the cradle of Francesco's special sensibility. It is easier to understand, here, preaching to the birds. It is easy to understand living simply, free of pomp and greed and splendor, deep in the breast of the nurturing Earth.

The crucifix that spoke to Francesco is no longer at San Damiano. To see that you have to go back into the city.

It is big and hangs suspended from the ceiling of a special chapel built for it in Chiara's basilica. Rather than the usual sky blue, the ceiling is scarlet with golden stars. As at Francesco's basilica, the pilasters and vaulting are covered with interlacing geometric designs. Frescoes cover the walls beneath the vaults. Everything radiates from a Madonna in black robes. The white dove beside her head, inscribed in a black circle, is surrounded by flights of angels. To her left, in the fluid magic time of the medieval narrative fresco, San Giorgio slays a dragon. To her right, the wise men bring gifts. These panels are surmounted by an Annunciation. The back wall is covered with a Crucifixion which echoes the heavy, Byzantine crucifix suspended from the ceiling in front of it.

People come in, they cross themselves, they sit, they pray. They are not necessarily tourists. They, like the others at Francesco's and Chiara's tombs, have come to experience a direct connection to the spirit which emblazoned this city in the collective consciousness of the world.

The crucifix speaking to Francesco is number four in the fresco series of the Upper Basilica. It comes first in the second triplet of frescoes. Immediately following it is the exceptionally poignant "S. Francesco Renounces His Worldly Goods." Francesco has just stripped naked in the town square, in front of stunned bishops and burghers and children. His father, Pietro di Bernardone, is holding the clothes fresh off Francesco's back. The saint has emerged from the man; he is ecstatically oblivious to the shock he is delivering. His hands are raised in prayer; a divine hand slips through the vault of heaven signalling that Francesco is doing the right thing. He has become something else.

Moving forward, the fresco to the right is a further confirmation of the rightness of Francesco's action. The Pope dreams of a man shoring up the great Lateran Basilica in Rome on his shoulder; the basilica is about to collpase into the Pope's bedroom and out of the frame completely. The man is Francesco; he prevents the collapse with ease, supporting the tilting building on one palm, the other hand at his hip. From the left everything tilts precariously inward. But Francesco stands straight; everything to his right is true. The Pope, abed in a sumptuous pavillion draped in brocaded cloth of gold, is saved by Francesco in his humble brown robe, effortlessly staving off collapse.

The security guards in both the Upper and Lower Basilicas know me now. They have grown used to me coming in every afternoon and moving from spot to spot, observing. One of the things I observe is that most of the people who walk through don't actually see anything. Most walk through respectfully on their way to the gift shop or the Saint's Tomb. Some pause and look. Very, very few walk to the first panel and follow the progress of the story, which is indispensable to understanding this place. A few art history classes do this, with guides and teachers explaining, but often their patter is canned and their groups are glassy-eyed either with awe or Stendahl's syndrome. It takes time to absorb these riches. I'm glad when they leave and the basilica quiets again.

But what a privilege it is to be here. There is so much beauty, and whimsy, and joy painted inside these basilicas. The vaults are a basketweave pergola overhead, only instead of clusters of grapes or roses, they are filled with pictures of saints and angels in celestial pastels. There are no devils here, no gaping jaws of hell, no fearsome Last Judgments. Here the intent, like the light, the color, the space itself, is beatific.

The rose window in the Chapel of San Antonio di Padova downstairs is a thickly-clustered wreath of lilies-of-the-valley and violets, but for blossoms there are pious and whimsical friars praying. The window panels use various design motifs to solve the problem of linking the images vertically; architectural and floral motifs frame the figures and lead the eye.

Above the altar of the Lower Basilica, in a Byzantine grotto, even Christ looks like an Eastern diety, his halo articulated into golden peacock feathers. To the right, a Giotto series of the life of Christ makes the requisite parallels with San Francesco. To the left are the brilliant images of Lorenzetti, a master from Florence. The styles are richer, more cosmopolitan than in the humbler Giottos. Here the Renaissance is already in bloom. In the central vaults, over the altar, the frescoes look to the mosaics in San Marco and Byzantium for inspiration; painted on a background of glittering gold, San Francesco sits enthroned like a golden samurai, the most beautiful prince of heaven.

It didn't take the Papal orthodoxy long to transform Francesco from the avatar of peace and blissful poverty to a crusading warrior for Christ. The trial-by-fire panel in the Upper Basilica shows a Sultan astonished that Francesco would accept the challenge of walking through fire to prove his faith while the Sultan's holy men cower. Francesco was already being transformed by the Vatican PR machine into an ardent Crusader. It is fact that he went to Egypt and met with the Sultan, but now revisionists point out the logical fallacy of Francesco as Crusader, and hold that Francesco chose words over swords in explaining his faith to the pagans.

This is my last visit. I want a little more time in the Lower Basilica but it is quite dark; some lights have definitely not been turned on. But I look anyway. My theory is always to follow the light and see what you can see. I am about to when the guard walks by and disappear into a chapel behind me, and then it's like magic when, wham, the lights come on and everything sparks to life. The guard says nothing. He walks back up the nave to where he had been chewing the fat with the other guards. He did me a beautiful favor, unasked and unpaid. I take my last long looks.

In the world of Art History, it is conventional wisdom that these works prefigure and express the beginnings of the renaissance development of perspective; implicit in this is the assumption that perspective marks a great leap forward, like the wheel or penicillin. I see it differently. Giotto and Company were great artists, capable of anything, and their selective use of perspective is a matter of choice, not a lack of knowledge in its rendering. Just as their time is not conventional, mixing various periods and millenia within the same frame, their perspective is not conventional. It is one part of the grammar of a language all their own.

Perspective became a fetish, developed to its logical and pictorial limits and, by the twentieth century, was discarded as the dominant visual language. New languages emerged, nonlinear, relativistic, and equally valid. For Giotto and Company, their particular perspective was necessary to tell their stories. Their imagery reminds me of Marianne Moore's description of poetry, "imaginary gardens with real toads in them." The expressions on the faces are more than real enough; but the scene around them is a careful Ikibana-like arrangement of symbols. This language is as distinct from the flat formalistic Byzantine iconography as it is from renaissance linear perspective. The faces are a glowing interplay of light and shadow and color; the folds of the fabric are soft and sensuous; but time and space are conflated in unique and original ways. Realistic detail is realized in a different spirit.

To see these masters of the Basilica primarily as "visionary geniuses" for first glimpsing the grand edifice of Perspective, misses the point. They were absolute masters of their own visual language, with only as much "perspective" as suited their dramatic ends.

It is also a mistake to see Francesco himself either as a Proto-Flower Child or as a an evangelizing Soldier of Christ. He absolutely evangelized; but to the birds and beasts of the field as well as to men and women, high and low. He was love-driven; it was all the same to him. Creation was continuous and his message is a special delivery telegram of love for it. That was his beat, his groove, his particular role in history. That is why this basilica, and this town, these ancient stones, these hills, and these timeless works of art, all vibrate with a sense of beneficent abundance.

But there are no free lunches. The price of appreciation is the obligation to become an active force for good with acts of kindness, love, bravery, generosity of spirit. Gratitude is not an emotion; it is an imperative upon which we must act. It takes the form of being able to say "I did everything I could today to exalt and preserve the majesty of the human spirit and the gift of the natural world."

Leaving the basilica, the image I choose to take with me is the last one you see on the way out. On his way to the nearby town of Bevagna, Francesco encounters a gathering of birds, and stops to speak with them. They listen. They understand. The fresco is called "La predica agli uccelli," the sermon to the birds. The brother behind him seems a little surprised that Francesco is speaking with the birds, but Francesco is beatific as he leans towards them, encouraging them to sing in celebration of the beauty of creation. You know they will, that just as soon as the conversation is over they will burst into the sky, the way the birds gathered on the telephone wire did this morning at San Damiano. They will find their favorite branches and sing. It is the song you hear all the time here if you're listening.

[For the Day 4 Photo Gallery, click Here]

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