One of the most innovative Italian books of the early baroque period, the Descrizione del Sacro Monte della Vernia, published in 1612, illustrates the experiences of Saint Francis and the buildings of the Franciscan community at La Verna. Drawing from the Gallery’s rich holdings of works with Franciscan imagery, called Heavenly Earth features images such as Saint Francis at La Verna, which brings context to book. It includes 30 traditional representations from the late 15th to mid-18th century. Heavenly Earth will be on view on the ground floor of the West Building from February 25 through July 8, 2018.
“We are very fortunate to have two copies of the first edition of the Descrizione del Sacro Monte della Vernia,” said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. “This exhibition offers a special opportunity to share outstanding prints depicting Franciscan themes from the permanent collection as well as from the Kirk Edward Long Collection.”
In September 1224, in the wilderness of La Verna, a mountain in the Casentino Valley in Tuscany, Francis of Assisi began a 40-day fast and contemplation of Christ’s Passion, during which he prayed to share in Christ’s suffering. The legendary answer was a fiery, six-winged seraph enfolding the figure of a man on a cross. When the seraph departed, Francis’s body was imprinted with the crucifixion wounds of Christ, which the friar bore for the remaining two years of his life. Francis’s mystical union and unprecedented stigmatization on La Verna was a critical event in Western spirituality and proved to be the effective birth of modern monasticism. La Verna is an active monastery today and is the second most holy site for the Franciscan Order, after Assisi.
Other highlights in the exhibition include early works such as the refined miniature leaf Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata (1470s) by Cosmè Tura as well as woodcuts, which demonstrate the variety of early artistic interpretations of the stigmatization. Later prints after paintings by Federico Barocci and Peter Paul Rubens incorporate specific visual details of the event based on accounts published in I Fioretti di San Francesco and its appended Considerazione, translated into Italian in 1477. Although the majority of works feature Saint Francis receiving the stigmata at La Verna, the exhibition also includes a range of Franciscan iconographic themes popular in the Counter-Reformation, such as the saint’s rapt prayers in the wilderness, his devotion to the Madonna and child, and the Pardon of Assisi.