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Video transcript

when we think about the great tradition of religious painting in the West the great Christian tradition we often think of painting on panels but where did that begin we begin to really see painting in the West in the 12th and 13th centuries and one of the most famous examples of this is an altarpiece by bun Ventura de belem Gaddy known as the st. Francis altarpiece this is a life-sized altarpiece so Francis is about five feet high that would have stood on an altar and would have been the focus of religious meditation of Prayer and although the depiction of the figure of Francis is a common height this is not a naturalistic depiction and that's part of the point is this is within ten years of Francis's death and canonization he's just been made a saint and so part of the purpose of this image is for his followers to show his saintliness the miracles that he performed to depict him as a person who was blessed by God so who was Francis he'd been born into a prosperous family but as a young man he had had some kind of intense religious vision and he renounced his worldly possessions according to some stories he actually took the fine clothes off his back and threw them back at his father so what was important for Francis and for his followers was to live a life of poverty to follow the example of Christ now the Franciscans the order that comes from Francis's teaching was a mendicant order they lived by begging and they lived in the relatively new cities that existed in Italy this was a moment of transition between this period that we know as the medieval or the Middle Ages and what will eventually become the Renaissance and in the new cities in Italy and elsewhere in Europe we have the beginning of a merchant class the beginning of an accumulation of wealth which will help to power the Renaissance so what are we learning about Francis when we look at barrelling garius altarpiece we're convinced of his spirituality he is placed within this gold background the gold leaf that's been applied to the wood that is the support for the altar and this is the light of heaven and very much in the medieval tradition the artist has been perfectly happy to distort the proportions of the body lengthening him not only is he long gated but he seems to almost float above the ground there's a weightlessness to him the brown drape that he wears that's adopted by the monks in his border hides his body underneath we don't have an interest in the human body this is not a man of the body that we were seeing Francis as spirit here you know that brown robe and the simple belt made out of rope and the fact that he's not wearing any shoes he's barefoot all of these things are symbols of his humbleness in the world of the way in which he renounced the world's wealth the world's pleasures to live a life that was as close to Christ as possible and what he's showing us as he lifts his hand and exposes his palm is the stigmata these are the wounds that Christ received on the cross that are appearing miraculously on the body of Francis and you can tell that it was important to the monks the Franciscans who commissioned this altarpiece and this is the earliest dated franciscan altarpiece but you can tell that it was important to the monks to highlight the stigmata this incredible miracle that Francis received but there are lots of things about Francis's life that made him very popular and we can see those things I depicted in the apron scenes that surround the central figure of Francis if we start in the upper left you see st. Francis kneeling in the wilderness this is a very schematic representation very much in this late medieval style you can see that he's looking up and praying to the Seraphim that is this angelic figure and it is at this moment that Francis has this vision and then receives the stigmata below we see a very important moment for Francis's followers and this is the Francis preaching to the birds so this idea of preaching to the lowliest creatures resonated with Francis's message of preaching to the poor it's important to note that the Franciscans and the other mendicant orders would often build churches on the outskirts of cities in order to reach the poor the lived not in the city center but at its edges I love the representation of the preaching to the birds and I love especially that small little mountain that is this landscape this stand-in for nature but it's so stylized now the four remaining apron scenes are all representations of posthumous miracles that is miracles that were associated with Francis after his death and they have to do largely with healing the disabled or in the case with this scene at the bottom right of a kind of exorcism over moving of demons and those scenes where we see st. Francis healing are meant to help identify him with Christ and the Apostles and thereby also to convince us of his saintliness his holiness this is a painting that really does express a divine authority in the early 13th century Byzantine icons that is images of the Madonna images of saints in a flat gold background increasingly came to Italy and influenced artists they're like barrelling Gehry the Byzantine influence is in the elongation of the figure its flatness and in that gold background here we're seeing many elements that are typical of the Byzantine figures that are frontal weightless elongated that gold light of heaven in less than a century with Giotto we're going to see an interest in human beings who aren't in much more natural proportions a renewed interest in a realistic believable earthly setting for figures but it's fascinating to see this really moment in Italian painting and the influence of the Byzantine Empire you