Changes in Consciousness
Lead to Shifts in Culture
As we look deeper into the turning points of culture, we find that fundamental shifts are often invisibly seeded by the saints and sages who first bring forth a higher level of consciousness. The taproot of the Italian Renaissance, for instance, can be found in Assisi where the life of St. Francis inspired artistic pioneers in the movement toward naturalism. As Giotto and Cimabue painted St. Francis, nature appeared for the first time in European sacred art.
In the previous era of Byzantine era all pictures of the divine were purposefully flat and stylized. The image was meant to be a symbol pointing away from this world toward the heavenly realms, and should not remind the viewer of this world. The Byzantine style reflected a theology in which spirit and matter were diametrically opposed. All that arose from the earth; matter, flesh, nature- was considered an obstacle to Spirit. The material world was considered to be fallen and corrupt. Our ascent into heaven required, according to this medieval theology, that we reject the temptations of body and nature.
In speaking to nature as ‘brother’ and ‘friend’, and in preaching to the animals, birds and fish, St. Francis showed a reverence for the divine in nature that was a revelation to the medieval mind. St. Francis understood all of creation as an expression of the divine, and each of God’s creatures was made in that holy image. Nature could appear in art because St. Francis disclosed the spiritual value of the natural world. Giotto could depict a holy saint preaching to the birds. Art historians recognize this humanization of the divine as the decisive break from the Byzantine tradition.
In simple prayers that flowed from an exalted state of consciousness, Francis shifted the crux of the medieval theology. The simple yet radical stance of love and respect for nature broke through the stultifying confines of the medieval worldview, ushering us toward a more expansive cosmology.
Patron Saint of Creativity
St. Francis was himself a pioneer of new art forms. In writing “Canticle of the Creatures” and other devotional poems and songs, he was the first to write in the Italian vernacular. He believed commoners should be able to pray to God in their own language, and thus he wrote in the dialect of his native Umbria instead of the high Latin used in liturgy. St. Francis is thus, according to literary critics, the first Italian poet. St. Francis also invented the living nativity, a poignant re-enactment of the birth of Christ still practiced throughout the world. In 1223 he created the first live creche when a small hermitage was too small for Midnight Mass:
“...he prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed. The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise.” (St. Bonaventure)
This new form of sacred theater was immediately embraced as a way to deepen devotional experience, and the practice soon spread.
At the Academy of Art, Creativity and Consciousness, we are greatly inspired by the joyful creativity of St. Francis and his innovative use of music, poetry and theater to deepen devotional experience.
article by Dana Lynne Andersen
May you be inspired both by the beauty of creation and the creation of beauty!
Dana Lynne Andersen,
Director of Awakening Arts