At breakfast today my friend was telling me about a story he’d heard on NPR while I was away about the evacuation plans for selected artwork from the National Gallery in the event of a terrorist attack. After the passing jolt of fear the news of the existence of such codified plans generates, we decided wouldn’t it be great to get one’s hands on the list of the art that made the cut? Fat chance. Though it would make a great walking tour of the museum’s collection, for many reasons I’m sure this won’t be made public. Interestingly, after 9/11 I was going through all the treasures in New York and wondering what I would take in an emergency. Of course, not being the National Gallery my sights were smaller, and I had it narrowed down to just one using the burning building model.
People who know me as a Modernist (and atheist) might be surprised by the choice, for I picked Bellini’s St. Francis of Assisi in the Desert at the Frick, which depicts St. Francis receiving the stigmata. In the painting St. Francis is standing on a rocky ledge outside his cave, a hapless donkey and blue heron, his only companions. I love the few, quotidian details Bellini inserts here and there, the little wooden gutter jutting out from the rock, St Francis’s clodhoppers kicked off under the lectern, the wonderful twig gate leading into his lair. They root the scene in the real world, and for the modern viewer they are delightful period touches. And of course there is the memento mori skull to remind us where we're headed.
Looking carefully you can see a thin line of gold representing the Holy Spirit passing down from the heavens to his hands. St. Francis seems to be knocked back from the impact. The rocks that form the cave take up most of the background creating a large grayish dun colored expanse and a strong diagonal upwards thrust. In the left corner one can see the distinctively Italian countryside and the towers and fortification of a hill town rising up to the cloud-flecked sky. The overall palette of tawny golds, beiges and greens is the perfect foil for that patch of glorious Bellini celestial blue that hovers above and which fills me with such a sense of exhilaration.
It seems to me the painting says so much about beauty and about goodness and integrity. Though unreligious, I do admire St. Francis and what he stood for (the sweet donkey references this) and I admire his spiritual quest, so artfully depicted here, which to me is about courage and independence and an ultimate belief in oneself. So for its beauty, spirit and humanity there’s no question that I’d grab St. Francis of Assisi in the Desert before the conflagration.