St. Francis of Assisi Review: Did you know the bird-loving wanderer was a Marvel superhero?

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In medieval Italy, a wealthy young man named Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, the son of a silk merchant, gave up his worldly identity to become the wandering preacher known to history as Francis of Assisi. Happy in its poverty, communing with nature, talking to birds, praising Brother Sun and Sister Moon, its radical and joyful version of Christianity challenged a church that had become a system of power and wealth.

It is not necessary to believe to believe in St. Francis. Francis was the real thing, as innocent and poetic as the portraits of him, to judge from a letter he wrote to his friend Brother Leo which is on display in the National Gallery’s rapturous exhibition on this inspirational figure. And the vision of him is as urgent as it was 800 years ago, seen in startling finds including a medieval feminist fresco of the Poor Clares, as the female Franciscan order was called, and a silver horn given to Francis as a symbol of peace by the sultan at – Malik al-Kamil.

St. Francis of Assisi is co-curated by the director of the National Gallery, Gabriele Finaldi. Considering his work, he’s refreshingly free from artistic snobbery. The show celebrates the sentimentality and artistic beauty inspired by San Francesco: as if you had entered a Baroque church in Naples where great art hovers among candles, incense and macabre effigies. Includes a Marvel comic titled Francis Brother of the Universe between paintings by El Greco and Fra Angelico. At first I thought, “What desperate stuff.” And do we really need to be greeted by a statue of Antony Gormley spreading his arms and gazing skyward? Yet it is a valid inclusion, because it replicates the position of the enraptured saint in a painting by Bellini.

The exhibit includes royal relics. The brown sackcloth robe and hemp belt Francis is said to have worn are here, on loan from the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence. This ruffled fabric is juxtaposed with a 1953 abstract artwork Sacco, or Sack, by Alberto Burri, whose layers of worn sack are perforated by a red circle that could be bloody stigmata.

Burri once held an exhibition in Assisi, and his humble assemblages helped pave the way for Arte Povera, the 1960s Italian art movement that rejected plastic-fantasy modernity and instead brought natural, even living materials into the gallery. Central to this exhibition is Arte Povera sculptor Giuseppe Penone’s 2012 work Door Tree, a thick cedar trunk with a section cut away to reveal what appears to be a young sapling, still fresh and vital deep within the old worn out bark.

This ecological artwork that calls us to empathize with endangered nature is truly in tune with St. Francis. There were no nature-destroying factories or highways in 13th-century Umbria, but its sympathy for fellow creatures challenged a Christian hierarchy that held that animals were created for the benefit of humans. In a manuscript illumination executed just two decades after his death, English artist-chronicler Matthew Paris portrays Francis bowing to address an attentive gathering of birds. In a 15th-century Sienese painting by Sassetta, we see how he negotiated a truce between the people of Gubbio and a wolf that had terrorized them. He gently shakes the wolf’s paw.

You could tell the story of St. Francis and art in a more conventional way. It is arguable that his direct and eloquent approach to life and feeling for nature started the Italian Renaissance. Giotto painted frescoes of his story that brought a new humanity to art. But instead of a detailed account of how this preacher changed art history, this show explores how he urged us to change our lives. Beggars, Andrea Büttner’s giant woodcut series from 2016, challenges you with stark images of other human beings in need. In other contexts, her work has struck me as annoyingly pious, but an exhibition of religious art suits her perfectly.

The church, of course, has betrayed and contained Francis almost from the moment he died. He was made into an icon and the Franciscan friars who were supposed to continue his work soon became corrupted like other orders. In the Counter-Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries, when the Catholic church was reinventing itself as a popular faith to fight Protestants, it revived St. Francis as a figure of a fading mysticism. This has produced the largest painting here.

Caravaggio was twenty years old and living in the house of a cardinal in Rome when he painted St. Francis of Assisi in ecstasy. A handsome angel cradles the unconscious saint in his arms in what may be Caravaggio’s most explicitly gay painting – and his most endearing of himself. St. Francis is truly unmanned as he sinks, falling into the angelic embrace. Divine youth looks at him with sweet love. The bearded face of the saint, freed from the friar’s hood, is certainly by Caravaggio.

Francis – or the artist – appears to have stigmata, the mysterious phenomenon in which a mystic seemingly receives Christ’s wounds: the angel touches a bloody gash in the saint’s side, echoing the spot where Christ was pierced on the cross. Francesco / Caravaggio identifies himself so much with Christ that he is experiencing the agony of the Passion. Yet he is at peace. This death is liberation, this intimacy is a ruin. Caravaggio paints a love without limits, the desire for human contact of a man driven to fight, threaten and kill in the violent streets of Rome.

This masterpiece, borrowed from the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Connecticut, elevates a fascinating exhibit into the realms of transcendence. A previous head of the National Gallery, Neil MacGregor, staged a major exhibition which championed the power and glory of Christian art. Finaldi reiterates that here for a new era, in a more radical and socially charged way. Count me converted.

• St. Francis of Assisi is in the National Gallery, London, from 6 May to 30 July.

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