Saint Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), the son of a cloth merchant, was born into a wealthy family at Assisi, Italy. Francis had much love for animals, with special fondness for the birds. He liked to refer to animals as his brothers and sisters. Legend has it that wild animals had no fear of Francis and even came to him seeking refuge from harm.
In 1224, Francis went up onto a mountain and began a 40-day fast. During that time he is said to have had a miraculous vision and received the marks of the nails and spear exactly as they appeared on the body of Jesus during His crucifixion.
After his death in 1226, Francis was declared a saint by Pope Gregory IX. His Franciscan order is still active today caring for the poor, educating youth, and performing many other good works. The Church celebrates the Feast of Saint Francis on October 4.
The Sermon to the Birds is the fifteenth of the twenty-eight scenes from the Legend* of Saint Francis in the Church of San Francesco in Assisi. Twenty-five of these frescoes are accredited to Giotto di Bondone. The two scenes on the entrance wall the Miracle of the Spring and the Sermon to the Birds are those in which the hand of Giotto is most apparent.
According to the Legend, Saint Francis came across a flock of birds that did not fly away at his approach. He preached a sermon to the expectantly waiting birds, who only flew away after receiving his blessing. Giotto often underscores the extraordinary nature of events through the reaction of a secondary figure in this fresco, the Franciscan friar standing behind Saint Francis raises his hand with a surprised expression on his face.
Few details of Giotto’s early life are known with any certainty. He was born in northern Italy ca. 1266-67, may have studied art with Cimabue, was married, and the father of eight children. Giotto went to Assisi around 1290 to work on frescoes in the Church of San Francesco. He was commissioned by the Franciscan General Giovanni di Muro to paint the series of frescoes depicting the Legend of Saint Francis in the Upper Church, which were completed between 1297 and 1299.
Giotto gained fame for his frescoes in the Scrovegni (or Arena) chapel in Padua, which he began ca 1305, and this major work influenced many other artists.
Giotto’s innovative naturalistic style of rendering the human figure and use of perspective signaled the beginning of the Renaissance. His artistic works were highly acclaimed, and included painting, sculpture, and architecture. His later works include the Scrovegni chapel frescoes in Padua, the “Giotto campanile” in Florence (in 1334 Giotto was appointed chief architect of the Florence cathedral), and many other works for which he became known as one of the greatest artists in Italy. He died in Florence on January 8, 1337.
*“Legend” as used here does not have the mythical connotation that it frequently has now. The word legend comes from the Latin adjective legenda, “for reading, to be read.” This Latin meaning also applied to the English word legend when it was first used in the late 14th century referring to written accounts of saints’ lives; however, since the 15th century legend has been used to refer to traditional stories as well.
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