One of the things being away from home for more than a month means is that I have to sort through the stack of mail that has piled up in my absence. In addition to the variety of correspondence, bills, packages, other mail that has arrived, I have a month’s worth of periodicals and academic journals. Among these things is the July 11 & 18 issue of The New Yorker. After looking through the latest issue of Commonweal, The Atlantic, and a few other things, I picked this issue and was surprised to see a brief “Critic’s Notebook” entry titled, “Art Into Life,” by The New Yorker Art Critic Peter Schjeldahl. His remarks about the painting are really touching, if a bit random (aside from the new show centered around it). He describes the painting as “the most perfect of pictures.” The entry is very brief and worth quoting here at length.
While you’re looking at Giovanni Bellini’s big oil on wood “St. Francis in the Desert” (circa 1475-78), at the Frick Collection, it seems to satisfy every personal use you’ve ever had for art. Wanting any other work would betray gluttony. Now the museum has organized a little show around research into this most perfect of pictures. There’s not much to discover. X-rays of the scene, in which the saint stands transfixed in a multitudinous landscape, find a completely worked-out drawing, across which Bellini applied the skin of paint as deftly as if he were pulling a blind. The jewel-like style rivals that of contemporaneous Flemish oils but is suffused with Italian tenderness. The painting stuns with its conception of physical and spiritual vision as one and the same. We are seduced by naturalistic and poetic details — that personable donkey, unforgettably — while being set back on our heels by the polished execution. Like the humility of St. Francis, the work’s sublimity makes you want to be worthy of it. Change your life!
The only thing missing here is a more substantial theological explanation of the image’s context. He is standing in ecstasy, not simply in prayer, but on Mount La Verna receiving the Stigmata. It was really neat to see one of the most famous Franciscan paintings (perhaps one of the most famous paintings in general) appear in a secular publication like The New Yorker. Francis appeals to all — his legacy transcends so many boundaries!