Ethics and poetics: the architectural vision of Saint Francis of Assisi
Caicco, Gregory Paul (McGill University)
Phd Philosophy Thesis, McGill University (1998)
Contrary to the view of many interpreters that Francis of Assisi (1181–1226) dabbled in church renovation for a few years following his first conversion experience in 1205, architecture remained a central preoccupation until his death in 1226. His creative practice ranged from hermitage planning to the clothing design of its occupants, from architectural legislation to the composition of psalms to be sung in the hermitage churches. Through the medieval art of memory, Francis formed his architectural intentions around two contemplative foci: first, the symbol of the tau, which became his attire, prayer position, signature, talisman for healing the sick and the crucifixion of Christ imprinted on his flesh in the stigmata; and second, the chapel of the Portiuncula, which Francis renovated himself to be the cave of the annunciation and the nativity, the womb of Mary and a portion of heaven on earth where angels descended. With its hedge-bound monastery, it became the prototype for construction among his followers. As the art of memory aimed at an ethics, so did his architecture strive to inspire communal good through narratives of compassion, voluntary penance and humility.
The Portiuncula was copied throughout the Franciscan order, but as the order grew its commitment to poverty waned. As a result, buildings began to deviate from Francis’ ideals. Rather than resort to prescriptive architectural legislation, Francis addressed this dilemma through an intricately choreographed performance of his death whose poetic image would be unforgettable for those who wished to imitate him in word, deed and architecture. Two years after this event the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi, built by his friend and hand-chosen successor, Br. Elias, rapidly rose to house the newly canonized saint. Its earliest form, narrative and symbolism, also widely imitated, seems to illustrate aptly Francis’ architectural vision: if the Portiuncula was the Bethlehem of the order, the Basilica’s tau plan became its Jerusalem.