Certainly the highlight of a vist to Montefalco’s 14th-century Church of San Francesco will be the splendid mid-15th-century fresco cycle of the life of St. Francis by esteemed Florentine painter, Benozzo Gozzoli, in the apse.
But the Franciscan church – now il Museo di San Francesco – houses many wonders. As in countless churches of ancient origin, the decoration of the church walls and side chapels is a result of continuous superimposition due to pious initiatives. The wall decorations painted between the early 14th and 17th centuries, are the “result of the devout pressure of various individuals or collective parties, who often cancelled out one other’s initiatives,” as esteemed art historian Bruno Toscano has written.
You’ll enter the church from the pinacoteca, picture gallery, housed in the 14th-century Franciscan monastery adjacent to the church and as you head down the steps into the church, a tempera-on-wood panel painting, “”Our Lady of Succour,” greets you: an example of the pious commissions cited by Prof. Bruno Toscano.
Painted in 1510 by Tiberio d’Assisi (who had probably trained in Perugia under Pinturicchio, then under Perugino), the inscription along the bottom tells us “Griseida di ser Bastiano had it made for the souls of the aforesaid per Bastiano…and of Franceschina, in the year of Our Lord, 1510). Toscano theorizes that the Virgin might in fact be a portrait of the Franceschina mentioned by the patron in his commission to the artist.
The image alludes to the legend of the impatient young mother, annoyed by her capricious child, exclaiming, “May the devil take you!” When the devil then does grab the child,…
…..the repentant mother seeks rescue from the Virgin.
The Virgin is characterized by youthful beauty and nobility as she brandishes a club:..and the devil is a monstrous human/bestial hybrid:
Here in the side aisle and not far from la Madonna del Soccorso, hangs a crucifix painted in tempera on a wooden, moulded panel by an Assisi artist, follower of Giotto, known as “ Il Maesto Espressionista di Santa Chiara”:
The cross was commissioned by the Franciscans as is clearly evident by the image of the kneeling figure of St. Francis, kissing the feet of Christ, “thus calling attention to the suffering born by the Savior for the redemption of men.”
Do note the main shaft of the cross and the frame, adorned with the motifs of textiles and tapestries of the period.
Toscano considers this artist one of the most skilled in assimilating Giotto’s “invention of a distinct western pictorial language freed from the stereotypes of Byzantine painting and mindful instead of visible reality,…often seen in relation to the deep economic, social, political and then cultural changes that took place in the period…” (Bruno Toscano).
And the mendicant orders, particularly the Franciscans, played a leading role.
Not just Francesco but many another Franciscan is depicted in his church, including Bernardino da Siena who preached in Montefalco in this very church in 1426, his intent always in his sermons to unite the faithful in the name of the Lord, always invoked at the start of his impassioned sermons. Concluding his fiery, impassioned sermons – how he drew in the crowds! – he would bless the people raising up a panel painted or incised with the monogram IHS, the acronym for “Iesus Hominum Salvatorum” (“Jesus, Savior of Mankind”).
In 1426 when San Bernardino preached in Montefalco, he reconciled quarreling locals and according to tradition, to seal the pacification he had brought about, he gave them the panel now in the museum.
Gozzoli depicted San Bernardino in another fresco commission he had received in this church – possibly from a notable of Montefalco named “Girolamo” as the St. Jerome is protagonist in the fresco images. Fra Jacopo di Montefalco, intellectual of the community who had brought Gozzoli to Montefalco, belonged to the la confraternita’ di San Girolamo (Brotherhood of St. Jerome) in Perugia and had a strong personal devotion to the saint; therefore, he most probably suggested the narration of the episodes.
The fresco is created as a multi-dimensional polyptych on the wall, the vault above frescoed with images of the Four Evangelists.
The Virgin with Child reigns in the center of the polyptych and San Benardino is depicted to the left (near St. Jerome in brilliant red Cardinal’s garb):
Another Franciscan saint is on the right, flanking John the Baptist: St. Louis of Toulouse:
San Bernardino appears yet again – as devotion to him must be diffuse in Montefalco where he had preached less than thirty years prior to the creation of this fresco, painted by Gozzoli in 1452.
The Saint appears in the predella of the polyptych, near San Severo, 4th-century military leader (sword drawn) and co-patron saint of Montefalco (with San Fortunato)
A curiosity to note: in the episode of St. Jerome leaving Rome to seek the solitude of the desert, that city metaphorically represents paganism and earthly delusions – and Castel Sant’Angelo is pictured off in the distance:
The fresco episode on the opposite side depicts St. Jerome, many years later and with long beard and bald, tenderly removing a thorn from the lion’s paw. Two of his companions flee in terror: back into the walled town of Montefalco?
And before you leave the Cappella di San Girolamo, note the round arch enclosing the space: San Bernardino appears once again, frescoed by Gozzoli:
Angels hold a rich and elegant tapestry, backdropping the bald saint. San Bernardino is always easily recognizable for he’s the saint in a Franciscan tunic, bald and toothless, and either holding up his IHS plaque or a book. The other hand is often raised in a gesture of admonishing or preaching.
Many Montefalco ambiences bear his image – and even this San Francesco church has other San Bernardino depictions.