Brother Francis and Brother Sun (Frate Francesco e Frate Sole) by Giovanni Costa

Giovanni Costa

Brother Francis and Brother Sun (Frate Francesco e Frate Sole), 1878–85, Oil on canvas, Castle Howard Collection, York, Reproduced by kind permission of the Howard family

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‘Like a Bridegroom Leaving his Chamber’

St Francis of Assisi is shown greeting the sun with open arms as it rises behind Mount Subasio in his native Umbria.

Inspired by the Fioretti (‘little flowers’)—tales of the saint’s life written in the Middle Ages—the Italian landscape painter Giovanni (Nino) Costa chose to present the saint at a specific and symbolic time of day. He is in the act of pronouncing his Canticle of the Sun, a praise poem in awe of God’s creation. Like Psalm 19:4–6, the Canticle of the Sun pays special tribute to the sun as the bearer of light and life alluding to the cycle of day and night as well as of birth and death.

Experiencing and rendering this cycle and the beauty of God’s creation lay at the heart of Costa’s work. While not religious in the common sense, the artist believed in the notion of God revealing himself in nature. St Francis to him and many others was the perfect mediator between nature and a spiritual realm and in her comment on this painting nineteenth-century critic Julia Cartwright (1887: 148) concluded that:

it is the presence of Francis which gathers all these separate beauties into one grand and complete whole; it is his song of thanksgiving which lends a deeper meaning alike to the dawn flush which mantles the hilltops, and to the flowers which spring up under his feet.

Costa painted several pure Umbrian landscapes ‘permeated by the Franciscan spirit’ that celebrate the beauty of the place and its spiritual connotations (Agresti 1904: 270). In Brother Francis and Brother Sun, however, he goes further by introducing the friar seen from behind as a point of reference for the viewer and an invitation to step into the landscape to experience and praise its beauty in the same way as the protagonist.

Writing about another of Costa’s Umbrian views of about the same period, his biographer Olivia Rossetti Agresti described how the painter got up every morning at 4 am ‘to seize the precise moment of this effect of light, which lasted only a few minutes’, accounting for the importance of truth to nature for the artist (Agresti 1904: 235–36).

 

References

Agresti, Olivia Rossetti. 1904. Giovanni Costa: His Life, Work and Times (London: Gay and Bird)

Cartwright, Julia. 1887. ‘The Art of Costa’, Portfolio, 18: 147–151