Friday, January 04, 2008

Saint Francis Receiving Stigmata from Winged Christ: Interpretation

Pieter Pauwel Rubens
The Stigmatization of St Francis (c. 1616)
Oil on Canvas,
Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne
(Image from Web Gallery of Art)

Regarding the previous two days' posts on a 'winged Christ', I received an interesting comment from the blogger Brandon Watson, of the blog Siris, who responded to one of my closing questions. I had asked:
So . . . are we seeing an image of a winged Christ or an image of a winged seraph in the image of Christ?
Brandon suggested:
I think there's an even more complicated possibility (and I think it's the one Bonaventure is actually trying to suggest in the passage you quoted in the previous post), namely, that it is the image of Francis himself in the image of a seraph in the image of Christ crucified. I think Bonaventure, at least, wants to avoid treating the figure in the vision as directly of either Christ or a seraph because Christ is not a seraph and seraphim do not suffer. By treating the vision symbolically as being of Francis himself, Bonaventure is able to avoid suggesting that Francis's vision implied either of these, while still being able to treat it as a significant event worth careful study.
Brandon here provides support for a view that I tentatively put forth in the first of my two posts on these Medieval and Renaissance images depicting the stigmatization of Saint Francis. Concerning Bonaventure's description in Commentaries of St. Bonaventure the Bishop (Legenda S. Francisci cap. 13) of the vision experienced by Saint Francis during his stigmatization, I had written the following:
The expression "there appeared to him as it had been one of the Seraphim" comes from the Latin clause "vidit quasi spéciem uníus Séraphim," which I suppose could also be translated as "it appeared as one of the seraphim kind." My Latin is not very good, but the obscure passage seems to imply that Francis's love took the form of a seraphim in the likeness of Christ crucified.
Well, as I confessed, my Latin is poor, and I misconstrued "video" to have the meaning not only of "to see" but "to appear." I should have checked a Latin dictionary and a Latin grammar first. The Latin "vidit" must mean "he saw," i.e., that St. Francis saw. So, the original translation of "There appeared to him" was a possible way of rendering "vidit," but my suggestion of "it appeared" is totally wrong. Nevertheless, I believe that Brandon and I are correct in seeing the seraph as an image of St. Francis. Let's look again at the crucial passages from Bonaventure's Commentaries, first in Latin (for those better than I):
Dum ígitur seráphicis desideriórum ardóribus sursum agerétur in Deum, et afféctus compassiva teneritúdine in eum transformarétur, cui ex caritáte nimia crucifigi complácuit; quodam mane circa festum Exaltatiónis sanctæ Crucis, in látere montis orans, vidit quasi spéciem uníus Séraphim, sex alas tam fúlgidas quam ignítas habentem, de cælórum sublimitate descéndere. Qui, volatu celerrimo ad áëris locum viro Dei propinquum perveniens, non solum alatus, sed et crucifixus appáruit; manus quidem et pedes habens extensos et cruci affixos, alas vero sic miro modo hinc inde dispósitas, ut duas supra caput erigeret, duas ad volándum extenderet, duabus vero réliquis totum corpus circumplecténdo velaret. Hoc videns veheménter obstupuit, mixtumque dolori gáudium mens ejus incurrit, dum et in gratióso ejus aspectu, sibi tam mirabíliter quam familiáriter apparentis, excessivam quamdam concipiébat lætítiam, et dira conspecta crucis affixio ipsíus ánimam compassívi dolóris gládio pertransívit.

Intelléxit quidem, illo docénte interius qui et apparébat exterius, quod, licet passiónis infirmitas cum immortalitate spíritus seráphici nullátenus conveníret, ídeo tamen hujúsmodi visio suis fuerat præsentáta conspéctibus, ut amícus ipse Christi prænosceret, se, non per martyrium carnis sed per incendium mentis, totum in Christi Jesu crucifixi expréssam similitúdinem transformándum. Dispárens ítaque visio, post arcanum ac famíliare collóquium, mentem ipsíus seráphico interius inflammávit ardore; carnem vero Crucifixo conformi exterius insignívit effigie, tamquam si ad ignis liquefactivam virtútem præámbulam sigillativa quædam esset impréssio subsecuta.
Now, the English translation provided at the same website:
The burning of his desire made his heart rise towards God like the heart of a seraph, and his tender answering love yearned to be changed into the likeness of him who hath so loved us that he was content to bear the Cross. And it was so that one morning early, about the time of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, he was praying upon the side of the mountain, and there appeared to him as it had been one of the Seraphim, having six wings, glorious and fiery, flying to him from heaven. It came therefore very swiftly, and stood in the air, hard by the man of God. He beheld then the appearance thereof that it was not winged only, but crucified also. His hands and feet were stretched forth and nailed to a Cross. Twain of his wings were lifted up and joined one to the other over his head, and twain were stretched forth to fly withal, and with twain he wrapped around his body. When Francis saw it, he was sore amazed, and his soul was filled with sorrow and gladness, for the eyes of him that appeared were full of strange love and tenderness, so that he conceived great rejoicing thereat, but the nailing to the Cross was so exceedingly dreadful, that as he saw it, a sword of sorrow pierced his soul.

Then he whom he beheld with his bodily eyes, began to speak silently unto him in his heart, and he understood that albeit the deathless Séraphim cannot suffer or faint, this vision was nevertheless therefore set before him, that he might know that as a friend of Christ he was to be all changed into the likeness of Christ Jesus crucified, not by the martyrdom of the body, but by the fervour of the soul. Then they held together some sweet converse, as of a man with his friend, and the vision passed from him, but his heart was kindled inwardly with the fire of the Seraphim, and his body was outwardly changed into the likeness of him who was crucified, even as wax is softened by the fire and taketh the impression of the seal.
Bonaventure describes St. Francis as seeing his own desire for heavenly things rise like the heart of a seraph toward God and his own love for Christ yearn for transformation into the likeness of Christ crucified. This desire and yearning of his heart, his "fervour of the soul," subsequently becomes transformed into a vision of something like a seraph but also like Christ. Bonaventure apparently wants us to see Francis as envisioning his own seraphlike soul in the form of Christ crucified. Christ is not winged, and seraphs do not suffer, so Francis is seeing neither a seraph nor Christ but a vision of his own soul in the form of a seraphlike Christ, with which he converses and which transforms his body to bear the stigmata.

I'm relying on the English translation provided, so my interpretation is provisional, but it seems at least plausible. If so, then the paintings depicting the stigmatization of St. Francis are presenting us with an image of his soul in the image of a seraph in the image of Christ. The painting itself is yet another image, so we have fourfold imagery with this painting.

Rather complex, as Brandon notes.

Yet even though Christ is not being portrayed as an angel -- for a soul is being presented as a seraph in the form of Christ instead -- the effect wrought by the painting itself is precisely that of portraying Christ as an angel, at least to the uninitiated viewer.

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