The Wish of the Young Saint Francis to become a Soldier
Sassetta, 1437-44
egg tempera on poplar, 87 cm x 52.5 cm
National Gallery, London, bought 1934

The National Gallery own seven panels of a polyptych, which would originally have had a balanced eight, that was on the back of an altarpiece in the church of San Francesco in Borgo Sansepolcro. It was commissioned from Sassetta (1392?-1450) in 1437 and installed in the church in 1444. The polyptych panels feature scenes from the life of St Francis, mainly taken from the Legenda Maior of Saint Bonaventure.

My postcard of this one panel names it as I have above, The Wish of the Young Saint Francis to become a Soldier. The National Gallery's website now calls it Saint Francis giving away his Clothes and Saint Francis Dreaming, and as that's a more accurate description, I should make a note to look again when next I visit it and see if they've changed the label.

Briefly: On the left, outdoor, the saint taking off a cloak while another man waits with prayerful hands; on the right, indoors, the sleeping saint is visited by an angel. Above, quite extraordinarily, quite dominatingly in a spooky way, a solid castle floats in the sky. It's as solid as anything in Magritte: Sassetta didn't faff about making it insubstantial or unthreatening. It's hovering above this change in St Francis's life likes it's going to crash down on him and the world around him.

As, indeed, it did. Read the node on Saint Francis of Assisi for his story, but the part that concerns us in this panel is that he was of good family, with a leaning to fine living and such gentlemanly pursuits as warfare, when he was visited by a dream. It showed him a well-armed castle, and he was told that this awaited him. He on awakening interpreted it as earthly clash of arms, but he was soon to learn it was spiritual warfare that was his calling.

The right-hand side, then, is indoors, but an airy, pierced indoors so that we can see it all. Under a white arch we see Francis on a richly painted and linened bed, glittering stars in the sky of the bedhead, a pillow of cloth of gold, his night garments rich and red and dripping over the bed. An angel is behind him, one hand upraised, little flame-gold wings all perky. Above the main room is a balconet of small arches.

It's day. Well, he's depicting two different scenes at once and has to choose, so it's day. There in the clear blue sky is this distant but huge square two-storey castle, with a pyramidal base of earth abruptly cut off below, and bristling with flags and shields: that of St George in fact, a narrow red cross on white. But I suppose such a common symbol could be some other saint's too, perhaps even St Francis's. These large flags jutting out at all angles give an air of real menace: the castle shows no soldiers or weapons (or angels), and if it had no heraldry it would seem just some shocking mute presence, but with the flags it's fully loaded for battle and storming and surprises. You feel it must be moving, positioning itself. This is the postcard I own, of the seven possibilities, because it's just so disturbing.

Outside on the right it's daylight, though the flush of yellow light along the horizon suggests Sassetta has conflated his two scenes by choosing the transition from night to day. There's a road going to a walled town, with a bit of forest between them. There's a poor man in a simple cap and robe of dull colour, and barefoot. His face is pinched. His hands are lifted up in thankful entreaty to St Francis.

What a contrast is Francis, with his beautiful dappled grey horse in scarlet trappings, with his wavy golden hair, with his intricately coloured and woven inner garment in which gold sparkles amid deep red, with his black hose, with his glittering spurs. In a fluid motion he has taken off a thick sky-blue cloak, the sleeve still on his left arm, and it's billowing out above the ground. So many riches given to him without asking, so much to give away at this the beginning of his new life.

Lastly, the perspective. This was new. The Italians had worked out how to do it, and Sassetta and Duccio and Giotto and the rest were playing with the astonishing ability to shape space and move things away, and up, and see through things, and arrange groups of people around things. Sassetta's in all these panels is one of the boldest, most joyous explorations of the new art of perspective that I've seen. He loved choosing scenes just for the difficulty of getting them right. This particular panel doesn't show it quite as much as some others, in the path over to the town, and the balcony and bedroom of the house; but its mastery is in that floating Castle, astonishing, even to my eyes, centuries later, worlds away, devoid of his beliefs, but still awed that someone could show an unreality like that with such immediacy and passion.

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