A solitary figure dressed in mendicant robes stands atop a rocky mountain ledge. He has risen from his simple eremitic dwelling and, leaving his shoes behind, stepped into a holy kind of light. With arms stretched, eyes raised, and mouth slightly agape, he is in a state of pure, ecstatic joy. The whole world seems arrested by an otherworldly glow as every creature—from the rabbit poking its head out of the ground, to the donkey lifting its attentive ears, to the distant shepherd tending his flock—turns towards this charismatic figure. Even the laurel tree bends its branches reverently as its leaves are seemingly set ablaze by holy fire. Something miraculous is happening, and we, as beholders of the image, are invited to bear witness.
To borrow words from the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘What is all this juice and all this joy?’ (‘Spring’, line 9).
This is Giovanni Bellini’s St Francis in the Desert, and the scene it most likely depicts is St Francis of Assisi receiving the stigmata (wounds of Christ) on Mount Alverna in 1224. Among a myriad visual representations of this popular narrative, Bellini’s is highly singular. Earlier images show Francis kneeling before heavenly beings and receiving five large wounds on his hands, feet, and side. By contrast, the Venetian artist here represents the miracle with exceptional subtlety, using light to convey divine presence, and with only two faint wounds on the upright saint’s hands visible (Hale and Rutherglen 2015: 94). Yet for all its mesmerizing subtlety, the painting also exudes a joyful exuberance. It is a moving portrait of a saint who understood what it means to, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’ (Philippians 4:4).
The root word for ‘joy’ (charis) is the most frequently employed term in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (Thurston and Ryan 2009: 94). Yet scholars note that charis refers, not to, ‘a facile joy in the absence of suffering or difficulty’, but rather to ‘deep joy’ of identifying with Christ’s Passion (Thurston and Ryan 2009: 4). Bellini’s St Francis is a vivid reminder that Christian joy is always found ‘in the Lord’, who fills us with his light and transforms us by his love.
Hale, Charlotte, and Susannah Rutherglen (eds). 2015. In A New Light: Giovanni Bellini’s Saint Francis in the Desert (New York: Frick Collection)
Thurston, Bonnie B., and Judith Ryan. 2009. Philippians and Philemon, Sacra Pagina (Collegeville: Liturgical Press)
4 Therefore, my brethren, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.
2 I entreat Eu-oʹdia and I entreat Synʹtyche to agree in the Lord. 3And I ask you also, true yokefellow, help these women, for they have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.
4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. 6Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.