Oscillations in Time and Space:

The Use and Effects of Repetition in Textual and Pictorial Portrayals of St. Francis’ Life


In her book Portrayed on the Heart: Narrative Effect in Pictorial Lives of Saints from the Tenth through the Thirteenth Century, historian Cynthia Hahn discusses the unique and intricate relationships of saints to time and space. Saints, she says, do not “participat[e] in historical time.” Instead, they live outside of the linear, historical progression, existing solely in an “upward spiral” leading to heaven. Furthermore, because saints really all “share one Life, that of Christ,” they “need not wait until the end of time to take up residence in the heavenly Jerusalem, for they reside there even during their life on earth” (34-36). In other words, saints exist in a spiritual realm even as they continue to dwell among mortals. These distinct spatial and temporal characteristics serve to distinguish saints and to demonstrate their closeness to God.

St. Francis Of Assisi’s life story, coming at the tail end of the time period Hahn focuses on, makes these saintly ideals more difficult to demonstrate. There is no doubt that Francis was a new kind of saint—one who chose to live among the sins of the world instead of retreating to a cloister to solely commune with God. As writers and artists began the task of memorializing him, they ran into the challenge of faithfully portraying Francis’ story while indubitably proving his sanctity. How does a man who spends so much time on earth, among people, also perpetually exist in heaven, sharing one life with Christ? How can a linear narrative—the story of Francis—exist in cyclical time? Bonaventure, a Franciscan friar who wrote down the third version of Francis’ life story, and Giotto, the painter of the frescoes in the Church of San Francesco in the saint’s hometown, approached the challenge of portraying time and space in the saint’s life in similar but distinctive ways to compensate for limitations inherent in their specific media. In Hahn’s eyes, “unlike texts,” in which events are “aligned in sequence,” pictures, because they are experienced instantaneously, produce a sense of “simultaneity, stasis, and wholeness” (46). Ultimately, Hahn argues that it is the effect of “totality”—pictures’ ability to exist within a single time and place—that makes them more spiritually powerful and faithful to saintly spatial-temporal conceptions. However, in making this somewhat one-sided claim, Hahn ignores the powerful effects of repetition, something she herself identifies as a “concept underlying narration” (40). Bonaventure and Giotto are able to manipulate their media through elaborate layers of spatial and temporal repetition to end up with very similar portrayals of both Francis’ dual existence on earth and in heaven and the cyclical time in which he operates. Ultimately, both the sequential elements present in a text and the simultaneity clearly expressed in the medium of painting must be present in these hagiographies to accurately frame St Francis’ sanctity.

In his literary portrayal of Francis’ sanctity, Bonaventure uses the naturally sequential structure of narrative to create a repetitive oscillation in space and time. The author explains that Francis “either ascended to God / or descended to his neighbor. / For he had wisely learned / so to divide the time given to him…” (Bonaventure 136). This sinusoidal fluctuation between the spiritual and earthly realms defines Francis’ life story: in Bonaventure’s account, over and over again, stories of working on earth to build churches or to help the poor are alternated with stories of Francis’ spiritual isolation. Even in his last days, after he has an epiphany in which he is “born aloft,” and his “half-dead” body is almost fully deteriorated, Francis insists on being carried down to “towns and villages” (Bonaventure 151). This complex kind of repetition is important because it makes Francis seem to be in both places at once, as both a holy man and a charitable one. Bonaventure chooses to say that Francis divided the “time” given to him in this way, but ultimately, the saint’s omnipresence defies conventional, linear time. The sequencing still exists in time—the linear, measurable time in which the text is read—but the seemingly endless cycle of alternation it establishes creates the illusion of eternity. Thus, by adding a fluctuating element to the traditional hagiographic structure of repetition, Bonaventure is able to frame Francis as a new kind of Franciscan saint who can live among the people and still conform to saintly spatial and temporal ideals.

Much like his literary predecessor, the artist Giotto also chooses to portray Francis in an oscillation between ascending to heaven and descending to earth. How are these sequential fluctuations in space conveyed in the more instantaneously experienced medium of painting? As Hahn rightly points out, illiterate medieval viewers read the “bodies of saints” to “access … [hagiographic] narratives” (57). Thus, it is only natural for Giotto to use Francis’ body to convey fluctuations in space. In a painting, a desert ascetic might be expected to look only inward or upward, while a layman would probably fix his gaze on the things of the earth. Francis, on the other hand, fluctuates throughout the twenty-eight panels. In the second panel, St Francis Giving his Mantle to a Poor Man, Francis is shown firmly grounded in a landscape as he fixes his attention on the recipient of his charity. In panel five, Renunciation of Worldly Goods, on the other hand, Giotto deliberately has everybody but Francis look down, while the saint stretches his hand and gaze upward to heaven, from where God’s own hand symbolically reaches out. Throughout the panels, Francis’ connection with both heaven and earth is stressed. In Panel 19, Stigmatization of St Francis, though the saint is kneeling on the ground, he is clearly connected with the angel in heaven by thin golden filaments, while in the Miracle of the Spring panel he makes a life-giving spring miraculously appear out of the earth. If we examine the panels in order, looking only at where Francis’ gaze is directed, it is clear that the heavenward and earthbound scenes are deliberately interspersed[1] (Giotto). In other words, despite the fact that, as Hahn claims, pictorial narrative is hard to put in “sequence,” by physically spacing the scenes in which Francis ascends and those in which he descends around the chapel, Giotto translates the narrative sequence of alternation that Bonaventure achieves in time to the space of the chapel walls (Hahn 46).

Because it deals with space rather than time, Giotto’s medium already lends itself to timelessness much more than Bonaventure’s writing. Whether we read the panels left-to-right or right-to-left, the alternation, the key structure for establishing Francis’ saintly existence in time and space, still persists. To accentuate the cyclical nature of time, Giotto places the panels in what is practically a circle—the viewer, when standing in the nave, is surrounded by frescoes of the life of Francis, so that all the events acquire a kind of simultaneity as they spiral around the viewer into heaven.  This cyclical structure also mirrors the concept of the liturgical year as experienced by the congregation of the church, as saints were memorialized on a repeating, cyclical basis rather than, as Hahn calls it, “as part of mundane chronology” (36). In this way, Giotto is able to use the physical shape and placement of the frescoes to suggest a particular idea of time.

Bonaventure, on the other hand, must employ a plot device—a second layer of repetition—to establish the notion of cyclical time within the linear, sequential framework of a written hagiography. Throughout the text, Bonaventure dwells on fulfilled prophecies and dreams as a way of connecting earlier events to later ones. The most explicit examples of the cyclical structure he tries to achieve, however, come at the end of the story. When Francis asks to die naked, Bonaventure comments that “therefore at the beginning of his conversion, / he stood naked before the bishop, / and at the end of his life, / naked he wished to go out of this world” (154). Later, as Francis’ body is taken to the church to be buried, Bonaventure reminds his readers that “it was there that he had gone to school as a little boy and there that he first preached and there, finally, that he found his first place of rest” (161). Clearly, there is an emphasis on the recurring aspects of Francis’ life—certain places and themes keep reappearing over and over again. The latter citation is particularly significant; Hahn claims that hagiographers especially like to use the number three, because in addition to mirroring the Trinity and other symbolism, “three repetitions confirm a pattern” in a Saint’s life (40). In other words, Bonaventure, by mentioning three specific times when Francis visits the church, makes it clear that this cycling of the Saint through the same places must occur thanks to a bigger concept at work—the hagiographic view of time. Bonaventure’s quest to close the loop and connect the beginning and end of this story into a unified, single whole is probably what led him to modify the original life story of Francis, written by Celano, to make Francis seem like a saintly and good figure from birth, instead of an indulgent playboy-turned-saint.

Throughout the analysis of the hagiographers’ placement of Francis within saintly spatial and temporal ideals, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that, as Hahn rightly points out, “The first and most important repetitive structure in the ‘Life’ of the saints consists of their narrative repetition of the Life of Christ” (39). Ultimately, the strategies employed by the two hagiographers do serve to portray the saint’s closeness with Jesus. They place the saint in a specific place—a kind of omnipresence both on earth and in the spiritual realm which mirrors Jesus’ existence on earth as both an extension of God and a performer of miracles, and within a specific time—the cyclical and unified time under which God operates and within which Jesus lives eternally. In a sense, the effectiveness or success of a hagiography could be judged by its adherence to the structure of Christo-mimesis. Which medium, then, works best? Hahn seems to miss the mark by making texts and images seem like different breeds of hagiography with separate portrayals of time and space. In the case of St Francis, textual and visual representations borrow strategies from each other[2] to portray the sanctity of Francis, a new kind of holy man, more effectively. Giotto takes a page from Bonaventure’s book by employing a sequence—a narrative structure—within the space of his painting, while Bonaventure mirrors the effect of cyclical time Giotto achieves through his placement of panels in space by consistently employing cyclical repetition in his narrative. Through this crossover of effects, both media end up stronger and more convincing, and begin to transcend their inherent limitations; Bonaventure creates strong mental images of fluctuation and circular movement, just like Giotto creates narrative sequences through his alternation and placement of panels. In this sense, both works can be hybrid yet independent entities that successfully depict the same saintly time-space conceptions.

Ultimately, this crossing-over of media mirrors the way that medieval people would have actually experienced these two types of hagiography: simultaneously. While Hahn seems to insist on analyzing pictorial and textual hagiography separately, in reality the average churchgoer would sit in a chapel decorated with scenes from the lives of saints while listening to readings from textual hagiographies. There can be no doubt that in the church of San Francesco, built to honor St Francis, members of the congregation would routinely hear excerpts from Bonaventure while surrounded by Giotto’s frescos. In that case, the two works would certainly have mirrored each other in remarkably powerful ways, transporting churchgoers into saintly space and time and creating an incredibly strong argument for the holiness of Francis.

Works Cited

Bonaventure, Life of St. Francis. Trans. Ewert Cousins. New York: Harper Collins, 2005.

Giotto di Bondone (or follower), Frescoes of the Life of St. Francis. c. 1305. Church of San Francesco, Assisi.  Wikimedia Commons. Web. 9 November 2011.

Hahn, Cynthia. “Word and Image. Narrative Problems in Pictorial Hagiography,” in Portrayed on the Heart: Narrative Effect in Pictorial Lives of Saints from the Tenth through the Thirteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. Pp 29-58.

[1] A close examination of the frescoes, in order from left to right, reveals an intricate alternation. Here are the directions of Francis’ gaze in the first fourteen panels: “1. Toward earth, 2. Toward earth, 3. Inward, 4. Toward heaven, 5. Toward heaven, 6. Francis is firmly planted in the earth and holds up a building, but gazes toward heaven, 7. Toward earth, 8. Toward heaven, 9. Toward heaven, 10. Toward earth, 11. Toward earth, 12. Toward heaven, 13. Toward earth, 14. Toward heaven.

[2] To be clear, I am not suggesting that Giotto and Bonaventure literally borrowed from each other (though Giotto probably had read or heard Bonaventure’s account); rather, they are borrowing hagiographic techniques from other media and appropriating them to their own work.