October 4, 2013

St Francis and the Animals

        Today is the feast day of St Francis of Assisi.  Now, I'm not Catholic and generally not much of one for the traditional Catholic saints, but I do like Francis.  Besides, he's a wonderful subject for art, because of all the birds and animals.  So I've collected a few block prints depicting St Francis with his creature companions around him.
        First up, a pleasing stylized portrait by Ade Bethune.  At first glance the animals aren't even obvious, but a closer look shows them making up the swirls and patterns of the background decoration, along with Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and some plants.  I particularly like that Bethune features humble animals, including insects and a snail, instead of the flashier big mammals.  I also like her Francis's face: gentle, but not so meek as to be limp.  He looks quite stubborn and determined.
        Much much more detailed is this image of St Francis preaching to the birds, by M.C. Escher.  I'm always a devoted fan of Escher, but I have to admit this isn't my favorite.  The saint's head seems a bit too exaggerated,  his leg too emaciated.  But the birds are a lot of fun, with their wonderfully textured feathers, and their great variety of beaks and expressions.  Two of them even have halos of their own.  I like how fascinated they seem with Francis's preaching - except the big bird in the upper left, who looks quite taken aback and downright dubious about what he's hearing.

        Fritz Eichenberg's version is just one of a number of woodcuts he made of St Francis.  This one was a personal image made for family and friends, without the sharp satirical edge of so much of his more political work.  If you look closely, Francis's halo is made of birds, which I think is a cool touch.
        Finally, a particularly friendly-looking Francis by David Frampton.  This comes from a book in which Frampton has made illustrations of Francis with a wolf, a worm, flowers, people…  But I think this is one of the nicest stand-alone portraits, even though it is just the birds once again.
        Today is the day when many churches do "Blessing of the Animals" ceremonies.  I've never been to one, but it does sound like a fun tradition - although I really don't think our cat would find it the least bit fun!  But in any case, whatever your religion, it's never a bad day to celebrate kindness to animals, reverence for life, care for the natural world, patience, humility, and the desire to walk in the footsteps of one who preached love.

[Pictures: St Francis, woodcut by Ade Bethune, 1934 (Image from St Catherine University);
St Francis, woodcut by M.C. Escher, 1922 (Image from Boca Museum of Art);
St Francis, Sermon to the Birds, woodcut by Fritz Eichenberg, 1952; (Image from here);
"Need a place to rest, my sisters?" woodcut with multiple blocks by David Frampton from The Song of Francis and the Animals by Pat Mora, 2005.]

Just a reminder, if you're local, come visit Dedham Open Studios on Sunday.  Say hello, and see lots of cool arts and crafts by a huge variety of artists.  I'll be at Dedham Community House.
Dedham Open Studios

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