11/05/2011 12:23 pm ET Updated Jan 05, 2012

What Did Saint Francis Look Like?

Have you ever seen Saint Francis smile? Neither have I, and that's unfortunate because, according to his biographers, he was one of the most joyous of men.

Francis was the merry leader of a band of brethren who were self-named, "God's jugglers," as they worked and played and sweat and laughed with men in the fields and towns, before they ever preached to them. This sunny disposition also showed itself in the ways Francis located God in some startlingly "new" places according to the 13th century worldview: not just in women and men who are trying to be faithful, but in lepers and outcasts, ravenous wolves, fish and birds, the sun and the moon, even bodily pain and death. This is a man who rolled in the snow; who stripped naked in order to demonstrate to his father how joyfully he had renounced owning rich things; and who preached in his underwear to show humility. Still, we never see him smile. What a shame that is.

Blame it on the iconographers -- the artists and painters who have rendered Saint Francis' image since his death in 1226. There are thousands of paintings of Francis. The world's most popular saint is also, after Jesus, the most painted figure in history. It seems that, at least occasionally, we should see him smile. Instead we usually see him caught in the serious actions of his life story, as told by his biographers.

You might say that there is a "top three" in the history of art of the most important paintings of Saint Francis. First would have to be the fresco on the wall of the chapel of Saint Gregory in the Sacro Speco (English, "sacred grotto") in Subiaco, a city in the province of Rome. The Subiaco grotto was made famous centuries earlier by Saint Benedict of Nursia, who retreated there and founded the Benedictine order within its walls. Francis's fresco hangs to the right of the entrance to the cave and is inscribed as painted during the second year of the pontificate of Pope Gregory IX. That dates the painting to late 1228 or early 1229, making it the earliest surviving painting we have of Francis. Many scholars assume that the man you see in that fresco should be as close of a depiction we will ever have of the real Francis. He is wearing the rough habit of his order, a knotted cord about his waist, his hands are pre-stigmata and he's barefoot.

Second among the most important paintings of Saint Francis would be Cimabue's famous portrait that hangs in the right transept of the Lower Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi. The Francis you see there appears shorter and swarthier than the man we see at Sacro Speco. He is showing his stigmatized hands to the painter with downcast, humble eyes. Some biographers prefer this image as the most faithful of the early ones precisely because it seems to show a less idealized man. This feels like the Francis we know from the many of the stories in "The Little Flowers" and the biographies about him written by Thomas of Celano.

The third most important painting of Saint Francis is certainly the most reproduced image of him: Giotto's famous fresco, also from San Francesco in Assisi, depicting "The Preaching to the Birds." This is scene 15 in the narrative cycle located around the nave of the Upper Basilica. You've probably seen it on postcards, coffee mugs, holy medals, in books, films, and on your hotel and tour brochure if you ever visited any town in Umbria, Italy. Each of the images from the famous fresco cycles at San Francesco -- just like similar cycles in other Franciscan basilicas throughout Italy -- depict the notable scenes from the biographies of Francis. Like any good storytelling of a saint, they show Francis on his way of conversion toward heaven.

But then there are other images that call our attention. These hang in museums around the world. There is, for instance, Francisco de Zurbaran's famous "Saint Francis in Meditation" hanging in The National Gallery in London. The 17th century Spanish Catholic painter shows a kneeling friar in closet-like solitude, well-cowled, his mouth agape speaking to God, holding a skull in contemplation of death. This is a dark, stark, arresting image, far removed from the juggling and joyous side of Francis. Zurburan's countryman, El Greco, painted similar scenes.

Lastly, there is the famous painting closer to home: "Saint Francis in the Desert" by Giovanni Bellini, recently restored at The Frick Collection in Manhattan. Bellini's painting dates from the most exciting days of the European Renaissance, around 1480, when the artist was at the height of his powers in Venice, Italy. He took as his subject the patron saint of Italy, but he also added a variety of details, mysteries and symbolic touches that have kept experts guessing for centuries.

The painting was done in oils on three wooden panels joined together. Bellini placed Saint Francis in the foreground surrounded by an Italian scene that depicts both mountains and desert -- a common combination in central Italy. Going into the mountains, for the saints of Italy, has long been a way of replicating the experience of Jesus going into the desert. The two locales are united in the Italian worldview. In this picture, Francis is very much alone, in deep contemplation of God, gazing gently heavenward, his arms at his sides, palms slightly raised. There is a walled city in the background, a pasture with a donkey, farm land and what appear to be orchards. This is a place both rugged and alone, cultivated and civilized.

One's eye can wander in the background scenes for a long while. Who knows how a master painter decides what to put in those places of a picture? It is a created scene, to be sure, and does not represent any precise bit of the Italian landscape. So then, are the details simply what fancied the artist on those days, or did they hold some deeper symbolism that he was reading into the story of the saint he was aiming to tell?

And, what is that story, exactly?

The central action of "Saint Francis in the Desert" is taking place -- albeit somewhat mysteriously -- with Francis in the foreground. The natural world surrounds him, there, too. There are a red bird, various indigenous plants, an elegant heron and a rabbit that appears tucked behind the saint's outstretched arm. I can't help but think that such a rabbit was one that Francis may have purchased from a meat vendor in town only to carry it with him to the countryside where he could set it free.

There, standing dramatically, before you, is Francis. Unlike Cimabue's fresco of the swarthy little man, this Francis is the charismatic founder of the world's largest family of religious orders. Contrary to what we know as fact since his body was discovered several meters below the high altar at San Francesco in 1818, this Francis appears almost tall and lanky. He strikes a grand figure. We know that Francis had theatrical flair, but we don't imagine that he would display such a quality alone before God. This is the sincere movement of a man consumed by God at that particular moment.

But what is that moment, precisely? Bellini only tells us with tiny, almost indecipherable, spots of red paint. You can still see them on Francis's hands, and conservators who have recently examined the painting under a microscope tell us that there was once a spot of red on the saint's foot, as well. It is no longer visible. As for the traditional piercing of the side, it is nowhere to be found. In fact, one wouldn't imagine that this man is experiencing any sort of discomfort at all with the five wounds associated both with Christ's crucifixion -- and that seems odd. Nevertheless, Bellini is presenting us with the moment in time when the wounds of Christ were reproduced in the body of Francis: the world's first stigmata.

The greatest mystery of all in Bellini's famous painting is the presence of God. It strikes me that this Renaissance artist created a somewhat modern rendition of the famous scene, contrasting with Giotto's traditional representation of Christ in the form of a seraph imparting the sacred wounds to the holy man. Instead, Bellini has Saint Francis looking out of the frame to find the divine. God is non-representational. Only a soft light enters in and permeates the entire scene. It is this divine light that seems to illumine Francis and make him, quietly, like Christ.

Jon M. Sweeney is the author of 'The Pope Who Quit: A True Medieval Tale of Mystery, Death, and Salvation,' coming from Image Books on March 6, 2012. A version of this article appeared in a recent issue of America magazine.