The Wolf of Gubbio

St Francis with the wolf of Gubbio (from Sasseta’s altarpiece, 1437 – 1444)

Dear Readers, it might not surprise you to hear that St Francis of Assisi (1181 – 1226) is my favourite saint, both for his humility and service to the poor, and for his devotion to the natural world, and so it was a no-brainer to visit the exhibition about the many representations of his life at the St Francis of Assisi exhibition at the National Gallery (which finishes on Sunday 30th July so hurry if you want to see it!). The National Gallery itself is a bit of a building site at the moment, in advance of its 200th birthday next year, so it’s almost as if this exhibition, which is free, is an attempt to make up for all the inconvenience.

However, even before the exhibition one of my very favourite paintings in the whole gallery is the depiction of St Francis with the wolf of Gubbio from the Sasseta altarpiece. The whole altarpiece shows eight scenes from St Francis’s life, from him renouncing his father, a rich cloth merchant, when he commits himself to a life of poverty and founds the Franciscan order, to him walking through fire in order to impress the Sultan of Egypt who he met in 1218. It’s the wolf story that I keep coming back to, though, and anyone who has ever visited the National Gallery with me will have been dragged to look at this picture (probably en route to admiring Whistlejacket by Stubbs).

Have a look at the image above. The Wolf of Gubbio was a notorious killer and eater of people – on the right of the painting there are various bits of body, and there are bones strewn along the path. However, St Francis has taken the paw of the wolf in his hand, and is gesturing to the notary, sitting on a stool on the left, while the townspeople look solemnly on. The wolf has sworn not to eat anymore of the locals, and the notary has written it all down. In the sky, the flock of birds has changed direction abruptly, hopefully a good sign. It has a cartoonish appeal that must have made life easier for the mostly illiterate viewers of the altarpiece, and as always I adore the little details.

There is something about this that I find very touching – the idea of a pact between man and nature that has been so lost over the past centuries. St Francis was unusual in not taking that idea of ‘dominion’ literally – he seems to have seen the animals as both a source of divine inspiration, and of companions and partners in the world. What a healthy and respectful way to consider this extraordinary world that we live in!

St Francis composed a poem called The Canticle of the Sun. I’ve reproduced it in full below.

The Canticle of the Sun

Most High, all powerful, good Lord,
Yours are the praises, the glory, the honour, and all blessing.

To You alone, Most High, do they belong,
and no man is worthy to mention Your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendour!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars,
in heaven you formed them clear and precious and beautiful.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene,
and every kind of weather through which you give sustenance to Your creatures.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water,
which is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you light the night and he is beautiful
and playful and robust and strong.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains us and governs us and who produces
varied fruits with coloured flowers and herbs.

Praised be You, my Lord, through those who give pardon for Your love,
and bear infirmity and tribulation.

Blessed are those who endure in peace
for by You, Most High, they shall be crowned.

Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no living man can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those who will find Your most holy will,
for the second death shall do them no harm.

Praise and bless my Lord, and give Him thanks
and serve Him with great humility.[3]

The more observant (and older amongst us) might remember a song by Donovan called Brother Sun, Sister Moon, which appeared in a film of the same name by Franco Zeffirelli about the life of St Francis. If you watch the video, be prepared to grit your teeth at the sight of a curly-haired youth gamboling like Fotherington-Thomas (of Moleworth fame) through a meadow, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. Well, this was practically the 1960s when such things were allowed.

I can’t leave the subject of the Wolf of Gubbio, though, without sharing this much later painting, by Luc-Olivier Merson (1877). In it, we see the now reformed wolf wearing a halo, and being fed by the local butcher – part of the deal that the wolf did with St Francis was that the wolf would receive food in exchange for not slaughtering anyone. I love the bustle of this scene, from the sceptical cat at the butcher’s feet to the rather sad dog in the bottom left hand corner, and the small child stroking the wolf and looking up at their mother for approval. Interestingly, Merson himself is best known for designing postage stamps, but for me, this must rank amongst his finest work. It seems to me to suggest that it is possible for human beings to live in harmony with nature. Let’s hope that Merson was right.

The Wolf of Gubbio (Luc-Olivier Merson, 1887)

1 thought on “The Wolf of Gubbio

  1. Andrea Stephenson

    I went to Assissi when I was 21 as part of a coach tour of Italy, my first time abroad. I wish I remembered more about it. I remember visiting the church which must have been the basilica, but I have a memory of it being much smaller than it is looking at pictures!


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