Interpreting Art

One of the famous pieces of Franciscan art can be found in the left transept of the Lower Church of San Francesco in Assisi. It is a fresco done by Pietro Lorenzetti and is one of 17 frescoes he created in the church. This fresco is located lower on the transept wall under Lorenzetti’s masterpiece, The Crucifixion. The fresco is known as Our Lady of the Sunsets.

In the scene the Virgin Marry is holding the Child Jesus. The other two figures in the fresco are St. John the Evangelist (right) and St. Francis of Assisi (left), both of whom are looking at what is unfolding in the center of the scene. There Mary and Jesus are focused on each other, and Mary has a unique gesture, holding her thumb up pointing back to Saint Francis.

Given its location under the crucifixion fresco, it is not hard to imagine the artist is portraying the scene in St. John’s Gospel:

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his home. (John 19:26-27)

St. Francis enters the scene given the fresco was commissioned for the basilica honoring him. All manner of serious interpretations has been given e.g., Francis is taking on the mantle of taking Jesus’ Mother into his home. It is notable that the first home of the Friars after the 1209 “commissioning” of them as a religious order was the chapel, Our Lady Queen of the Angeles.

And of course, there have been less-than-serious interpretations of the scene. Most of them center around something akin to Jesus has just asked Mary which of the two men she prefers, and Mary is indicating her answer with that unique gesture. A variation is that Mary is pictured with a questioning countenance. In that version, Mary has asked Jesus who He prefers and is confirming His answer with her gesture. And, yes, these versions are home grown by the Franciscans.

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