The St. Francis Stories
Most of the St. Francis paintings were
inspired by stories from his life. Here are the stories.
The Renunciation of the
St. Francis’s father was a wealthy cloth merchant in Assisi. Francis grew up to be a privileged young man-about-town, indulging in quite a bit of merrymaking and revelry with his cronies.
When a war broke out between Assisi and Perugia, the idealistic Francis marched off to fight for his city. He was among those captured and held as a prisoner of war for a year. During Francis’s captivity, his compatriots questioned his loyalty to Assisi because he was always so cheerful.
After he was released and returned to Assisi, Francis’s behavior grew strange. He began walking alone all over the hillsides, singing and praying. He spent time in caves. There was talk that he had gone crazy.
During this time Francis experienced a spiritual visitation. He heard God’s voice commanding him to “Rebuild my church.” Francis took the command literally to mean that God wanted him to rebuild the dilapidated San Damiano, which is set on a slope outside the southeastern gate of Assisi.
In order to purchase the materials for the repairs, Francis sold some cloth from his father’s shop without permission. The priest at San Damiano thought it best to inform Francis’s father, who became enraged.
On a winter day, Francis’s father arranged for Francis to be called out into the town square in order to lambaste him. After this public humiliation, Francis said to his father something like this: “You are no longer my father. God is my father. I give you back my name, all of my earthly belongings, even the clothes on my back.” With that, he removed all of his clothing. Some accounts say he was wearing a basic loincloth underneath; some say he was wearing a hair shirt; and others say that he was naked.
Then Francis walked off barefoot into the snow to begin his life as a monk.
St. Francis Doing a
Handstand for the Virgin Mary
In his youth, St. Francis was very
influenced by the French troubadours who came through town
singing, dancing, and performing acrobatic tricks. G. K.
Chesterton in his Life of St. Francis
suggests that this is why
Francis nicknamed his order “The Jugglers of God.” (The
official name was The Friars Minor, or The Little
Brothers.) Chesterton says that one of the tricks of the
troubadours was a handstand and that we can well imagine
Francis performing a handstand for the Virgin Mary.
St. Francis in the
Garden & St. Francis in the Garden with Two
These are paintings in which I have
placed St. Francis in my own garden. It happened naturally
because I have a spiritual relationship with both St.
Francis and my own garden.
This painting presumes to portray St.
Francis in prayer.
Breaking the Fast
Early on in St. Francis’s songful,
prayerful wanderings, he began to attract followers. These
men, often citizens of consequence in Assisi, waned to
leave their secular lives to embark upon the life of a
mendicant monk. Such was Francis’s charisma. He had no
intention of founding an order; it simply happened.
During the time, when there were only a handful of followers, the brothers often prayed and fasted, sleeping in caves or huts. Once, in the middle of the night, Francis heard one of the little brothers crying. Francis went to him to ask what the trouble was. The brother told Francis that he was starving to death. Francis replied that the Lord did not want him to starve, so they would eat. Francis brought out food and they ate together.
[Note: When I made this painting, I did not know that Francis always ate sitting on the ground, something I learned in my later reading.]
The Sermon to the Birds
Once while Francis was walking with some
of the little brothers through the countryside, he came
upon a group of birds. He began to speak to them, telling
them that they should be grateful to the Lord because they
could sing and fly, soar and feel the sunshine and wind,
and because the Lord provided them with food and water and
all that they needed. The story has it that the birds
listened attentively. When Francis was finished, the birds
flew off in four directions (symbolizing the directions of
the cross) to spread his message throughout the natural
This incident happened when Francis was
still living the life of a privileged youth, though the
story portends his transformation. Francis had always been
strongly repulsed by lepers. It almost amounted to a
phobia. Once while riding his horse down a country road,
Francis encountered a leper. It was as if he experienced an
epiphany. He quickly dismounted the horse and kissed the
leper. Legend has it that as Francis moved down the road
and looked back, the leper disappeared, as if he had been a
After Francis had been head of the order
for a long time, he began to feel that he needed to spend
all of his time praying and meditating and that perhaps
someone else should be in charge of the Little Brothers. He
asked his closest companion, Leo, and also Sister Clare, to
pray about his dilemma. They both came back to him saying
the answer they received was that he should remain as head
of the order.
Francis replied that he already knew what their answer would be, because he had just had a dream about a little black chicken hovering over her brood. He said: “I am the chicken. She was little and black, and I am little and black. The order still needs me.”
The Tunic, The Cord,
& The Underpants
There is a St. Francis prayer that seems
to have its origin in a conversation Francis had with
another brother. Here is the prayer:
“My God, I am all yours.
You know I have nothing
Besides my tunic, cord, and underpants.
And even these three things are yours.
So what can I give you?
[Note: I saw the tunic, which is a relic in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi.]
The Dove at the
In 2006 I went on a trip to Spain and
Italy with my husband, Dennis, and our son, Tony. During
our stay in Assisi, we visited the Eremo (hermitage), which
was built on Mt. Subasio at the exact location where St.
Francis is said to have prayed and slept. It was here that
we saw a white dove, the only dove we spotted on our entire
trip; and it was sitting in a remarkable little window,
high on the wall of the Eremo, the perfect setting.
Clare was a spiritual young woman from
Assisi. She escaped from her family when her father wanted
to arrange a marriage for her. Her desire was to follow a
religious calling. Some of the little brothers brought her
to St. Francis. He helped her to found the second
Franciscan order, the Poor Sisters of Clare.
This painting shows Clare’s shorn hair, which Francis cut. The light blond hair is a relic kept in a glass box in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi.
[Note: Clare’s mother and two sisters later joined her in the order.]
The Brother Juniper stories are
delightful. Juniper always seemed to be doing the
unexpected in an unselfconscious, wacky way.
In this story, Juniper went to visit another monastery. All the monks were going off somewhere to pray and meditate, but it was necessary that one monk remain behind to cook the dinner. Juniper volunteered to stay. But then he thought, “Why should someone have to cook every day and miss out on praying and meditating? Why not cook enough for two weeks?”
This was a mendicant order, so Juniper set off to beg enough food to feed the monks for two weeks. He returned with a heavy burden of chickens, eggs, and vegetables, and began to prepare a mammoth dinner. He set five huge pots on the fires. Running from pot to pot, Juniper threw in all the ingredients: vegetables whole with stems, roots, and leaves; whole chickens, feathers and all; and eggs still in their shells.
When the monks returned, Juniper served up his inedible stew. As he ate, he kept proclaiming, “This stew is really good for you.” But he was the only one eating.
The head of the order laid into him. One of the tenets of the Franciscan order was humility, which Juniper took to heart. Consequently, he loved to be berated and humiliated. When the monks saw his reaction, they decided that he was a very holy man indeed, and that he had designed the entire incident for their edification.
The St. Francis
On his deathbed, St. Francis craved a
kind of sweet that his mother had made for him when he was
a child. It was described in the stories as a light almond
confection. It’s description sounded to me like an almond
meringue, so I made some and then painted them.
Lady Jacopa, a Roman noblewoman -- reportedly a very spiritual person -- was a friend of St. Francis. He teased her by calling her “Brother Jacopa.” As he lay dying, Francis requested that she be asked to come and to bring some of the almond sweets. The story goes that at that precise moment, she arrived at the door with the very sweets Francis had been craving.
La Verna – or Mt. Alverna – is the
mountain given to Francis by a nobleman as a place for him
to go and be alone to pray and meditate. It is located
almost 120 miles south of Assisi. Chesterton writes:
“Presumably the Franciscan rule which forbade a man to
accept money had made no detailed provision about accepting
It was here that St. Francis received the stigmata.
St. Clare invited the Pope to come to
dinner at the convent. Before dinner, the Pope asked Clare
to bless the bread. She replied that in his presence, she
dared not seem so presumptuous before the other sisters.
“In that case,” he said, “I’ll command you to bless the
bread so they will know that you didn’t take it upon
yourself to do so.” The story goes that after Clare blessed
the bread, crosses miraculously appeared on all of the
One winter night while Francis was on a
retreat in the mountains, he became overcome with either
longing to be with a woman, or longing to have a family, or
both. He ran out into the snow and began throwing himself
around in it. Then he built seven snowmen. He said: “I am a
monk, so I can’t have a wife and six children. So this is
[Note: A friend of mine said, “Gee, I never thought of a medieval snowman!”]
The Wolf of
wolf was plaguing the people of Gubbio. Francis was pretty
well known by this time, so the townspeople summoned him
for help. He came to meet with the wolf. According to the
story, Francis negotiated with the wolf. They made a deal:
the wolf would stop bothering the townsfolk, if they in
return would leave food out for the wolf. By all accounts,
the agreement worked.