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Scenes from the Life of St. Francis

Written by Valerie MartinAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Valerie Martin


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 288 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42758-8
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Inspired by the fresco cycles that depict the life of St. Francis of Assisi, acclaimed author Valerie Martin tells the life of Francesco di Pietro Bernardone in a series of vividly realized “panels” of moments both crucial and ordinary. Drawing from myriad sources and moving in reverse chronological order, she begins in the dark, final days, with a suffering Francesco on the verge of death, then shows us the unwashed and innocent revolutionary, unafraid to lecture a pope on Christ’s message. We see his mystical friendship with Chiara di Offreducci, a nobleman’s daughter who turns her back on the world to join him, and finally, the frivolous young Francesco on the deserted road where his encounter with a leper leads him to an ecstatic embrace of God. Salvation is at once an illuminating glimpse into the medieval world and an original and intimate portrait of the man whose legend has resonated through the centuries.


When San Francesco lay dying, he asked to be moved from the bishop's residence in Assisi to the chapel at the Portiuncula, a distance of about two miles outside the city walls. As they passed the city gates, he bid the friars carrying him to set him down on the road so that he might say farewell to the place of his birth. "This town," he began, "has the worst reputation in the whole region as the home of every kind of rogue and scoundrel." Then he begged God to bless the place and to make it the home of all who sincerely honored his name.

According to the brochure put out by the Commune's busy tourist agency, Assisi is a city that cannot just be "seen," it must be "experienced," a place, perhaps the place, where "the spirit of St. Francis pervades all." Every year hundreds of thousands of visitors, art lovers, tourists, and pilgrims from all over the world flock to see the famous basilica where the saint is buried. The narrow streets in which Francesco begged for bread are lined with hundreds of shops selling all manner of atrocious trinkets and some of the worst food to be found in Italy, at prices as breathtaking as the view from the Rocca Maggiore, the late-medieval fortress that glowers over the prosperous town. The spirit that pervades these streets is the same one that whistled down the stone staircases and across the Piazza del Commune in Francesco's lifetime, the same spirit that drove him straight into the outspread arms of Christ: the cold, relentless, insatiable, furious spirit of commerce.

Francesco di Pietro Bernardone was born in Assisi toward the end of 1181, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, Pietro Bernardone, and his wife, Pica, who may or may not have been French. Francesco had an ordinary childhood, helping with his father's business and attending the church school near their house, where he was an unremarkable student. He grew to be a lively young man, fond of music and parties, given to romantic tales, dreams of knighthood, fantastic treasure quests, and prayer in solitary chapels. During one such occasion, at the dilapidated Church of San Damiano, God spoke to him from a crucifix, bidding him to repair the church. Francesco took some bolts of cloth from his father's warehouse, sold them, and delivered the profit to the resident priest to pay for the repair of the chapel. Pietro, enraged by his son's extravagance, brought a complaint against him, which was resolved in the public square of Assisi. When the bishop advised Francesco to return the money to his father, he declared, "My Lord Bishop, not only will I gladly give back the money which is my father's but also my clothes." He stripped off his clothes, placed the money on them, and, standing naked before the bishop, his father, and all present, announced, "Listen, all of you, and mark my words. Hitherto I have called Pietro Bernardone my father; but because I am resolved to serve God I return to him the money on account of which he was so perturbed, and also the clothes I wore which are his; and from now on I will say, 'Our father who art in heaven,' and not Father Pietro Bernardone." The crowd wept in sympathy, and the bishop covered the youth with his own cloak.

Francesco then took refuge in the poor church, where he devoted himself to making repairs, begging for food, oil, and stones on the streets of Assisi. His former neighbors mocked him and drove him away, but one rich young man, Bernardo of Quintavalle, impressed by Francesco's sincerity and evident contentment in his new life, decided to join him. Together the two men gave away all of Bernardo's money and possessions to the poor.

After that, there were more followers. In 1209, when they numbered eleven, the group walked to Rome to ask the pope to approve a Rule by which they might live as liegemen to the Church. After a dream in which he saw the Lateran Basilica collapsing and Francesco holding it up, the pope, Innocent III, gave them a verbal and very conditional approval.

Francesco's brotherhood, the Fratres Minores, grew rapidly. Within a few years, the original twelve had grown to five thousand (by contrast, the Dominican order, the Friars Preachers, as they were known, founded at roughly the same time, had fewer than fifty friars by 1220), and they gathered each year during the feast of Pentecost for chapter meetings at the Portiuncula, a wooded area owned by local Benedictine monks and leased to the friars for one basket of fish per year. At these meetings, Francesco delivered various admonitions, the friars were assigned to different regions, the custos and ministers were appointed, and problems of administration were addressed. Between these meetings, the mission of the fratres was to wander homeless over the world, preaching repentance, begging for their food, offering themselves as servants to all. This was the way, they believed, the early apostles had lived, the way Christ had adjured all his followers to live, giving the world an example of virtue, loving poverty, making no preparations for the next meal, the next bed, but leaving everything to God.

San Francesco's ministry lasted nearly twenty years. His health was never good. In Egypt, where he went to attempt the conversion of the sultan, he contracted an eye disease that made his eyes weep continuously, gave him such terrific headaches that he could not stand any light, and eventually left him blind. He gave up the stewardship of the order and retired to Mount La Verna with three of his closest friends for a period of fasting and prayer. When he came down from this mountain, he had two features that distinguished him from all previous saints: his hands and feet were pierced by nails and there was an open wound in his side, as from a lance.

With the possible exception of St. Paul, who wrote in his Epistle to the Galatians (6:17), "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus," San Francesco's was the first recorded occurrence of the stigmata. It is not an exaggeration to say that the stigmata, as a religious phenomenon, was his idea. How such a thing could happen is, naturally, a great mystery, and before that mystery, many of his biographers come to a grinding halt, as if, rounding a bend in their pursuit of the humble saint, they suddenly encountered a raging elephant. Some see this event as the crowning achievement of Francesco's life, signaling his complete identification, hence, union, with his beloved Christ. Others suggest that there was an element of despair in the miracle; that Francesco saw himself as one crucified by the unrest and infighting in the great movement he had founded. His contemporaries, though they had never heard of such a thing, seem to have accepted it and found it in keeping with what they understood to be the nature of God's continual interference in the world of men. In their view, Francesco had been singled out and marked by Christ as his own. The stigmata proved what everyone already suspected, that he was a living saint. Two years later, in October 1226, Francesco died peacefully at Assisi, revered by all, his devoted friars gathered around him. He was forty-five years old.

This is the story one can follow in the fresco cycles painted by some of the greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance-Cimabue, Giotto, Sassetta, Bellini, Gozzoli-in colors and compositions that, after hundreds of years, retain an astonishing freshness and a heady exuberance, as if the artists were excited about the story they were telling. Unconcerned with meaning, they throw their energy into a personal vision, concentrating on atmosphere. Each sees the saint differently (Gozzoli, for example, contrary to several descriptions given by people who saw Francesco, paints him as a handsome, healthy young man with curling golden locks), and each brings the considerable force of his artistry to bear on "the life." They know the stories, are of the environment that produced the saint, speak the language he spoke, and believe, more or less, what he believed. The humble friar wandering silently through the landscape of the frescoes, his head encircled by light, is thus both a construct and a memory.

San Francesco is the patron saint of Italy, and nearly every town has a church in his name, decorated with scenes from his life; but the first cycle I saw was in the National Gallery of London nearly fifteen years ago. It was painted by a Sienese artist known as Il Sassetta sometime in the fifteenth century. I had seen prints of it, and had for many years a framed detail of the panel entitled The Mystical Marriage of St. Francis over my desk; it shows St. Francis exchanging wedding rings with Lady Poverty, a pretty barefoot girl with a wooden yoke over her shoulders. (I thought, as a young writer, I might profit by a daily colloquy with this lady.) But prints did not prepare me for the strangeness, the avidity, of the actual paintings. Fortunately, there was a bench in front of them, and I sat there for some time, admiring the otherworldly view.

When I moved to Italy in 1994, I made it a practice to visit any church or monastery that was reputed to have good frescoes of San Francesco. I was particularly drawn to the cycle painted by Benozzo Gozzoli in Montefalco, which depicts the saint as the new Christ, even reworking the nativity so that he takes his first breath amid cattle (though we know San Francesco was not born in a stable). In these paintings, as in the Sassetta cycle, the saint moves through a world that is both ordinary and magical. He lies comfortably on his bed while an angel enters the room from the ceiling, and outside his window, his dream-a castle with flying pennants-rises into the middle air. In another panel, he rushes down the street before his house, a well-dressed youth in a hurry, about to be waylaid by a poor man who prophesies that he will be a great saint. From the doorway, Francesco's mother looks on with an expression of mild foreboding.

The various frescoes drew my attention to the character of San Francesco; a lifelong interest in hagiography did the rest. I began to pick up biographies, randomly at first, and then with more direction, finding myself returning to the earliest sources, the accounts collected by the saint's three closest friends: Brother Leone, who served as his secretary for the last years of his life, and Brothers Rufino and Angelo, who were with him in the early days of the order.

Because saints were presumed to have certain agreed-upon powers and peculiarities, medieval hagiography has a tendency to emphasize the sameness of its subjects. Saints, for example, routinely possessed the ability to communicate with and tame wild animals. (St. Columban, an Irish saint who died within two hundred miles of Assisi, was known for his preaching to birds.) The oft-illustrated, well-loved stories of Francesco taming the wolf of Gubbio and preaching to the birds are probably apocryphal, intended to place him among a select company. Edward Armstrong points out one variant of the bird sermon story that strikes me as quite plausible, however. In this one, Francesco's preaching is ignored by the birds, who fly away, and he then chastises himself for being so vain as to imagine they would listen to him. This version has the ring of truth both because of the way Francesco chooses to reprimand himself-he calls himself "You stupid son of Pietro di Bernardone"-and the likelihood that he might want to try his hand at something saints were generally expected to do, for there can be no doubt that Francesco had every intention of becoming a saint.

But, in spite of their fidelity to the form of the inspirational text, the early hagiographies of San Francesco differ from accounts of other medieval saints. They contain surprising, small personal details (the saint's fondness for sweets, or the fact that his eyebrows met over the bridge of his nose), and represent a concerted effort to write down the exact manner and tone of his speech. The authors, who were with the saint for years on end, keep track of his moods and lament over his illnesses, complaining of the doctors' inability to do anything but make him worse. One has a sense of their urgency to get down for posterity this remarkable personality which was unlike any they had ever known. They quote Francesco confidently, not reverentially, and with an ear to the incisive wit and irony that surprised all those who knew him.

A second difference in these accounts is more difficult to describe, because it is more a matter of tone than content, an insistence that borders on stridency-as if the saint needed defending, as if there was an accusation to answer, as if San Francesco was on trial. This defensiveness on the part of his biographers persists to the present and can be explained in part by the events just preceding and following his death, for, though he died peacefully, in the odor of sanctity, the steely charge of controversy was in the air as well.

Before he died, the order San Francesco founded had begun to self-destruct-a fact that poisoned the last years of his life. As soon as he was gone, the Fratres Minores split into two factions that viewed each other with distrust and contempt. The crucial issue was Francesco's insistence, repeated in the various Rules he composed during his lifetime and with much force in his final testament, dictated on his deathbed, that the friars were to own no property, either personal or communal, excepting "one habit, quilted inside and out if they wished, with a cord and breeches."

In 1228, barely two years after his death, San Francesco was canonized by Pope Gregory IX (formerly Cardinal Ugolino of Segni, Francesco's old friend and patron of the order). The cornerstone was laid at Assisi, and Brother Elia, then minister general of the order, began the excavation for the great basilica in which the saint was to be buried. To this end, Brother Elia solicited and received in abundance that which Francesco had forbidden the friars even to touch: money.

Two years later, in September 1230, in the bull Quo elongati, Pope Gregory decreed that the testament, because it had been written without the consent of the minister general, had no binding power over the order. The friars could not own property, but they could have use of property owned by someone else-for example, the pope. They could, then, establish houses; have the use of books and furniture; rely on a supply of food; and attend the universities in Bologna and Paris. So fearful was the reaction to this decree in the widespread brotherhood (by this time some twenty thousand strong) that Francesco's earliest companions, Rufino, Angelo, and Egidio, were forced to go into hiding to escape persecution.

From the start, Francesco's biographers have been forced to address this controversy, to take sides, defending either the Church, which acted to preserve peace inside the order and to guarantee its continuance and governability, or Francesco, ignored and traduced by weak-minded followers who refused the rigor of his rule and betrayed his most treasured principle, the vow of total poverty. The fact that Francesco was also adamantly submissive to the Church, and especially to the pope, adds a certain piquancy to the struggle to settle the question of whether the founder actually intended to create anything resembling the order that bears his name. Evidently, he saw no conflict between his determination to respect Church authority and his need to follow the dictates of his own conscience, which he believed was in direct communication with God. He saw no contradiction even when these two were at loggerheads. Like a soldier who understands the chain of command, he took his orders from anyone who was over him, but when the battle raged and the general appeared on the field, he knew what to do.
Valerie Martin|Author Q&A

About Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin - Salvation

Photo © Jerry Bauer

Valerie Martin is the author of nine previous novels, including TrespassItalian Fever, The Great DivorceMary Reilly, and the 2003 Orange Prize-winning Property, as well as three collections of short fiction and a biography of St. Francis of Assisi titled Salvation.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with

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Q. In the introduction to Salvation, you describe being inspired by the frescos about St. Francis that you encountered during the years you lived in Italy. Is this indeed what made you interested in writing a book about St. Francis of Assisi?

A. The frescos, which were intended to tell the story of the saint's life for people who could not read it, made me curious enough to read a few biographies. It was clear from these that St. Francis was a controversial figure in his own time and that, for those willing to look past the contemporary garden image of the cheerful friar with a bird on his arm, he still is. I began to imagine a book about him that would give the reader the feeling of encountering this odd character, much admired and gossiped about, on the road, in the company of his friends, alone in his meditations, passing by in the distance. What was it like, I wondered, to see him and to hear his voice?

Q. You are the author of six novels and two collections of stories. This is your first work of nonfiction. Why not a novel constructed from this life?

A. First, it's already been done. Nikos Kazantzakis wrote a novel from the point of view of Brother Leo, St. Francis's amanuensis, in 1962. I do not admire this novel, but it is instructive, as it illustrates the dangers of fictionalizing a life as erratically documented as St. Francis's.

St. Francis was so famous in his own lifetime that people began making up stories about him even before he died, yet some evidence is reliable. There are town records, chronicles of historical events at which he was present, maps, letters (one in his own hand survives, complete with odd drawing and ink blot) and objects (his breviary, the crucifix that spoke to him). I didn't see the point of making up one more story about him, one in which he would be the sort of saint I would like to make of him. I wanted to give an impression of what his life might have been like, relying on the most factual evidence I could find.

Q. Salvation is told roughly backwards in time -- from the time of St. Francis's death to the moment of his mystical conversion, and the book leaves many details of his life out. Why did you choose this somewhat unorthodox approach to biography -- was your choice influenced by your novelist's sensibility?

A. Frustration and observation drove me to this method. My first impulse, which was to tell the story chronologically, meant watching Francis become a saint, but as we already know, he became a saint, so this is not a very suspenseful approach.

When I read the first biography, written by Thomas of Celano, and the early hagiographies, I was impressed by the grouping of anecdotes according to theme. In these books, chapters have such headings as: "Of Francis's Spirit of Prophecy," "Of the Poverty of Houses," and "Instances Against Money." The most popular collection of stories, The Little Flowers, pulled together by an unknown friar over a century after the saint's death, was described by its author as a bouquet of flowers found scattered in a field. These are fantastical tales, presented without any attempt at structure or order.

It became clear to me that an attachment to chronology was not part of the medieval world view, and that if I wished to enter the spirit of the age, I might best leave that modern preoccupation behind. St. Francis's life has a sad ending. He was exhausted and frustrated, begging for death. I wanted to end his story when he was strong, full of optimism and resolve, at the biggest moment of his life, which was his conversion. Starting when he was dying and moving towards this point allowed for the possibility of a happy ending, a last impression of exuberance and joy. The more I thought about St. Francis, the more I wanted that ending.

Q. What, if anything, surprised you about Francis the person, as you researched his life? Do you feel the same way about him now as you did when you began?

A. I was surprised by his aversion to learning, which was possibly the result of an inferiority complex he had about his own ability. His poor Latin is mentioned in more than one of the early sources. During his lifetime, the great universities at Paris and Bologna were coming into their own, and the only way to become a student was through holy orders. St. Francis discouraged his friars from seeking entrance into these universities, and particularly forbade them to own or even to want books. "A man has as much knowledge as he uses," was an oft repeated admonition of his. He felt the Bible contained everything a Christian needed to know. This is a sentiment that is still alive in the world. I am, naturally, unsympathetic to this view.

My feelings about him didn't exactly change in the course of writing Salvation. What drew me to him, what I wanted to explore at the outset of my study, was his obstinate stand against owning property, and his ability to stick to a commitment he made as a young man without any wavering or prevaricating, even when people he admired encouraged him to give in. Writing about him did give me a stronger sense of what his physical presence must have been like. In the course of my research, I spoke with a group of Poor Clare nuns in New Orleans who kindly invited me to tour their convent. Naturally, we began talking about St. Francis, exchanging anecdotes as if we were talking about someone we all knew well. One of the sisters observed, "People often say, 'Oh, you Franciscans, you talk about St. Francis as if he were in the next room,' but for us, he is." By the time I finished the book I began to share this not altogether pleasant sensation.

Q. What did you discover about St. Francis's life that you feel speaks to modern-day experience?

A. The iconoclast will be absorbed, the radical message will be diluted. St. Francis lived to see the brotherhood he founded riddled with dissent. Though he was revered as a saint, he was criticized for being too unbending, particularly in his wish that his friars should be mendicant and peripatetic. The new recruits wanted to be Franciscans, but they also wanted books and houses. What happened then, happens now. Charismatics draw followers, who then rewrite the message. What I find so curious is the persistence of people who are eager to join clubs that are clearly designed to exclude them. If you know the founder abhors university study, and you want to attend university, why join the order? One does not have to think hard to come up with examples of this phenomenon in contemporary life.

Q. You've written about Dr. Jekyll, who represents a kind of evil, and now St. Francis, who is a model of purity and goodness. Any connections?

A. I'm interested in outsiders and obsessives. Their extremes throw a harsh, revealing light upon the ordinary world, where we normal people labor in obscurity. When I wrote about Dr. Jekyll, what interested me was not why he was evil, but what it was like to work for him, how his aberrant personality was manifest in the ordinary daytime world. Jekyll was an imaginary character, and so a novel was in order. What interests me about St. Francis is not what made him so good, and I do believe he was as good as his world would let him be, but what effect that goodness had in that world. The scenes that comprise Salvation are my effort to look back through the intervening centuries with an imaginary telescopic lens and take a series of snapshots of an extraordinary man occupied with the daily business of his life.

From the Hardcover edition.



“Elegantly written and strikingly intelligent…. [Martin's] graceful book is very much a work of art.” —The New Orleans Times-Picayune

“Voluptuous language and ecstatic imagery.” —The Seattle Times

“A biography so vivid and compelling in detail that it reads like a novel.” —Fort Worth Star-Telegram

“Valerie Martin has the artistry to render a great life in a series of perfect miniatures.” —Cathleen Medwick, author of Teresa of Avila: The Progress of a Soul

“Dazzling…. An inspired work of the imagination, grounded in the truth of a powerful life whose mystery still captivates us.” —Patricia Hampl

“Compelling…. The story of a faith that is deep, dedicated and all-encompassing.” —The Oregonian

Salvation is at once Giottoesque and Gothic, terrifying and consoling…. One of those rare books with the grace and power to change your life.” —Paul Mariani

“A bold retelling of a familiar, beloved story.” —Los Angeles Times

“Stimulating…. Brilliantly done.” —The New York Times

“Martin's depiction of Francis through the eyes of his followers is her greatest achievement. Relating their devotion as well as their confusion, she paints a subtle and contradictory portrait of a holy personality-baffling and frustrating, sometimes offensive, but also radiant.” —The San Francisco Chronicle

“Martin has a great touch for vivid detail, for landscape settings, for qualities of light and times of day…. An aesthetic St. Francis is one who commands our attention, who draws us irresistibly toward a still point of wonder and self-reflection.” —Chicago Tribune

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