In Tours, France, St. Francis di Paola, confessor. He was the founder of the Order of Minims. Well-known for his virtues and his miracles, he was canonized by Pope Leo X. – Roman Martyrology for April 2
St. Francis of Paola was a monk who founded the Order of Minims in the 15th century. He was famous throughout Italy, France, and Spain for his many miracles.
The statue at right illustrates the principal attributes of St. Francis of Paola: a staff and a sunburst with the word caritas ("charity"), which was a particular motto of the saint (Butler, II, 11).
Often the sunburst tops the staff, as here, but in many images it is elsewhere in the composition. There are some paintings in which the Caritas sunburst appears to Francis in a vision (example), but so far I have found no literary references to such an event. When he was conceived, however, the neighbors in Paola observed in the sky above his parents' home "a very bright flame encircled by an aurora," which the Pope who canonized Francis called a presage that the child would "enlighten the present time of darkness as with a brilliant flambeau."1
The staff figures in many narrative images regarding Francis's miracles. When the workmen building a new monastery complained of thirst, for example, he struck a rock with the staff and water poured forth, echoing the water miracles of Moses and St. Peter.
Occasionally an artist will use an attribute taken from one of the miracle stories. Thus we sometimes see a lamb in portraits and narrative images (example) because of the legend of a nobleman whose dead lamb came back to life after he simply wondered to himself if Francis could revive it. And in this painting a platter of fish references the time the saint was given a batch of fish on a string. He took pity on "these poor captives" and put them in some water, where they revived and swam about.2
The saint lived to be 91 years old, so he is almost always pictured as an old man with a white beard. The order's Rule requires an undyed black habit with a black woolen belt, but usually the images make it brown. In rare cases the belt will resemble the Franciscan rope belt with three knots, as if the wearer were a Franciscan.
For centuries the saint was honored as a miracle worker and a man of astonishing saintliness, and there are abundant images of episodes from his life.
Conversion of the King of France
At the urging of Pope Sixtus IV, a reluctant Francis traveled to Tours in 1483 to meet with King Louis XI, a violent and devious man who was dying and wanted the saint's counsel. With Francis's encouragement the king repented his sins before his death. Remembering this intervention, Louis's heir Charles VIII endowed monasteries for Francis's order, invited him to stay in France, and frequently sought his counsel.3 This aspect of the saint's career is among the most frequent subjects of paintings and frescos, such as the second picture at right.
Crossing the Strait of Messina
Another frequent subject in the narrative images is Francis's voyage across the Strait of Messina during a period of exceptional turbulence, using his cloak as a vessel (example). This story is reminiscent of Elijah's miraculous crossing of the Jordan in 2 Kings 2:8.
The documents assembled in the Acta Sanctorum's article on Francis include literally hundreds of accounts of miraculous cures and resurrections, especially of children. These are the subject of many narrative paintings, such as the third picture at right.
Prepared in 2018 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University.