A young relative recently visited Istanbul, where he saw, in the Archaeological Museums, the remains of a cycle of frescoes depicting the life of St. Francis. The exhibit said that they came from a “St. Francis Chapel” and were the “earliest known examples of the life cycle of St. Francis,” dating from the mid-thirteenth century.
Since my work concerns modern versions of Francis, I hadn’t known about these, and I set out to learn more. The most useful source was Rosalind Brooke’s magisterial study, The Image of St. Francis: Responses to Sainthood in the Thirteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2006). Brooke cites Striker and Kuban, Kalenderhane in Istanbul (Mainz: von Zabern, 1997), as an important source on the chapel.
Incidentally, the Web proved to be a welter of inaccurate, misleading, and contradictory claims. Even the respectable Frommer’s Guide site said that the frescoes dated from 1204, a time when Francis had not yet begun his ministry. (1204 was the date of the Fourth Crusade.)
Brooke thinks that these are, indeed, the oldest known frescoes depicting St. Francis, much earlier than those attributed to Giotto. While no direct evidence for their age survives, she builds a strong circumstantial case from architecture, archaeology, political shifts, Franciscan presence in Istanbul, and the few other contemporary examples of Francis imagery. On these grounds she concludes that the Franciscans acquired the building – parts of which date from the sixth century C.E. – in about 1231, and that the frescoes date from the early 1250s. (The cycle in the Lower Church in Assisi is just slightly later, probably about 1260-65 – although Brooke observes that “the evidence is not tidy.” The cycle associated with Giotto dates from the early fourteenth century.)
The little chapel was located off the diakonikon (something like a sacristy) of an early basilica which was later incorporated into a larger twelfth-century church. The chapel was apparently walled off some time after the Greeks reconquered Constantinople in 1261, while the diakonikon was abandoned after the Ottoman conquest in 1453.
In Brooke’s words:
[During archaeological excavations in 1966-67] a barrel vaulted hall was revealed, almost filled with black earth, owing to its use, since the seventeenth century, as a sewage settlement tank. Off this hall was discovered a small, hitherto unsuspected chapel. … On the semi-dome of the apse were several fragments of scenes, of which only one could be immediately identified. But it was conclusive; it was St. Francis preaching to the birds.
There followed years of painstaking collection and reconstruction of fresco fragments, presumably from amidst the now well-decayed sewage. Enough pieces survived to allow art historians to reconstruct the “program” of the chapel decoration, but not every single scene. At the center of the apse, they believe, was a fresco of St. Francis standing. Above him were the Virgin and Child with angels. Four, perhaps five, of the surrounding scenes probably depicted miracles; one may be a deathbed scene; and one, of course, is Francis preaching to the birds. Three remain completely unidentified.
At the entrance to the chapel are frescoes of two Greek church fathers, clearly made at the same time as the Francis scenes (“the fresco surfaces are continuous”). Brooke suggests that their presence reflects the efforts then in progress to reconcile the Roman and Byzantine branches of the church.
So the physical record here, in its many layers, remembers both reconciliation and conquest. The building retains the image of a moment in time – or a period in time – when reunion between the Eastern and Western churches was thought possible. Yet many other layers reflect repeated conquests and conflicts.
And here is the sermon to the birds again. Clearly this story, which is so beloved today, was also significant very early on. In the chapel, though, it isn’t associated with nature or animals or the environment. It appears instead among miracles – quite possibly to be understood as a miracle itself. Thus do meanings change with time and culture.
As a historian, I can’t make judgments about the cosmic significance of the story. If I could, I’d be tempted to see some larger message in the survival and visibility of this one beloved scene.