The art essay

Saint Francis Cares for the Lepers by the Bardi Dossal (c. 1245–1255)

Painted between 1245 and 1255 by an unknown artist for the Church of Santa Croce in Florence, the Bardi Dossal, over six feet high, was intended to be placed against a wall or, even more likely, a column, as ­suggested by the term dossal. Its original placement is not certain, but it was moved to the Bardi Chapel of Saint Francis in 1545, 300 years after its creation. Its relocation to this chapel just to the right of the sanctuary was felicitous, since the dossal now stands surrounded on two sides by the extraordinary frescoes that Giotto painted detailing six episodes of the life of Saint Francis of Assisi.  In overall appearance the dossal is typical of many altar panels of the time and of preceding centuries, executed in the Italo-Byzantine style, the usual visual vocabulary of 13th-century Italian religious art. The gold background suggests the heavenly domain, but is employed most importantly to reflect the limited light from candles or shining through stained glass. A large figure of Saint Francis dominates the center of the ­panel, not unlike that in Bonaventura Berlinghieri’s Saint Francis Altarpiece of 1235 in Pescia. Italo-Byzantine treatment and details reveal a somewhat emaciated and ascetical Francis, displaying the wounds of the stigmata in his hands and feet as he holds the Book of the Gospels, or possibly the Rule of his order. Surrounding Francis on the left, right, and at the bottom are scenes of his life, all drawn from Thomas of Celano’s Life of Saint Francis. The panels are read from top to bottom on the left, then across the bottom, and finally up from the bottom on the right, not the usual sequence. Even more significant is the number of side panel scenes, twenty in all, the most complete narration of Saint Francis’ life in any Italian altar panel or dossal, and surpassed in number only by the twenty-seven frescoed scenes in the upper church of the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi.

Cleansing the lepers

Most notable among many extraordinary scenes is the panel on the lower right, second up from the bottom, wherein Saint Francis tends to lepers, depicted in two adjacent scenes that form one narrative. This panel is to be read chronologically, from the right to the left. Saint Francis, wearing an apron, bathes the sores on the legs of a leper. As the viewer’s eye ­advances to the left it is evident that Francis, his task completed, has laid aside his apron, visible in the background. We see a seated Francis holding a leper on his lap, a remarkable scene in many ways.  This is one of the rare depictions of Francis with lepers. The rarity of this scene in all the art of this beloved saint seems ­incomprehensible, since, in his Testament, Francis himself says that his encounter with and embrace of the ­lepers marked a defining moment in his gradual conversion and for his future ongoing spiritual journey. Yet this is one of few images of that encounter, and by far the most specific and graphic. Why is this the case?  The only possible explanation can be found in the fear and revulsion that leprosy and ­lepers inspired in people in the Middle Ages, as Francis admitted of himself in his Testament. It would appear then that the absence of this scene in most art devoted to him is explained by the fact that people could not bear to look at leprosy, and so artists, by and large, omitted this crucial event in Franciscan narratives.  This panel is one of the most outstanding and essential in all Franciscan art, and the ­narrative will not be seen again in major altarpieces and frescoes, including those gracing the upper church of the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi.

Francis’ identification with Jesus and Mary

The artistic value of this panel is not limited to its rarity. The theological and spiritual sophistication of the presentation merit attention. In the first scene Francis’ loving cleansing of the leper’s sores is reinforced by his bending over in a lowly position as the leper sits in newly discovered dignity. The viewer also recalls that, in Scripture, to be cleansed or healed of leprosy recalls cleansing from sin. The large basin which Francis uses for the water most certainly ­resembles a baptismal font. The central space with the draped apron provides an effective visual transition from the first scene to the following event. The discarded apron also suggests that the acts of service are completed and now lead to the next stage: personal, intimate contact, compassion—a genuine “feeling with”—and, ultimately, union wherein the two become one through this sharing. What better image than for Francis to take one of the lepers upon his lap, as a mother might hold her child close to her, and a reflection of the many images already widespread in sacred art of Mary holding Jesus upon her lap. Francis, the alter Christus, by his maternal nursing, becomes a second Mary and holds upon his lap Jesus, present in the suffering and marginalized man.  Quite simply put, this is one of the most complex and consequential panels in medieval art. Like all great religious art, this panel not only depicts a transformational moment in Saint Francis’ life but also invites the viewer to enter that ­moment visually, and to emulate Francis’ example.

Francis J. Greene Professor Emeritus of Fine Arts, Saint Francis College, Brooklyn Heights, N.Y.  

Saint Francis Cares for the Lepers, colloquially known as the Bardi Dossal (c. 1245–1255), Bardi Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence, Italy. © DeAgostini / Leemage.