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The Saint Francis Murals

An Art Review of the St. Francis Murals

The influence of St. Francis of Assisi upon religion, art, literature, music, discovery, science and politics is written large in history. His is the voice that ushered in the Renaissance six hundred years ago. The life of the gentle saint, his sayings and sermons, are altogether beautiful and are among the choicest heritage of all men and ages. He founded the great order of the Franciscans, who taking the vow of poverty and continence, set out to persuade the World to accept Christ as its Saviour. It was they who planted the Cross in New Mexico, eighty ears before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Their converts among the Pueblo Indians numbered tens of thousands and these Pueblo men and women fired by holy zeal under the direction of the Franciscans, built the missions at Acoma, at Pecos, and in other pueblos, massive, imposing, worthy structures-a century and more before the Franciscans reared the missions of California. The Franciscans suffered excruciating martyrdom in the Pueblo rebellion of 1680 and at other times, writing into the annals of this commonwealth a page of glorious sacrifice and devotion.

Santa Fe, the capital city of New Mexico, like every other Spanish town has its patron saint, and it is St. Francis, the city’s ancient name being "La Villa Real de Santa Fe de San Francisco de Assisi," "The Royal City of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi."  It is fitting, therefore, that in the beautiful Sanctuary of the new Museum, a candid adaptation of the ancient Franciscan missions of New Mexico, the mural decorations commemorate the life and influence of the gentle St. Francis.

It was Mr. Frank Springer who made it possible the realization of this dream, by giving the means to execute this noble work of art. Donald Beauregard, a young artist of notable achievement and still greater promise, was commissioned by Mr. Springer to the task. Having studied under masters in Paris, in Munich; in Spain, having won high honors, he visited Assisi and the places which knew St. Francis.

Beauregard steeped himself in the spirit of the Middle Ages and the renaissance, read the works of St. Francis, and the biographies of the saint, then set to work to make the preliminary- sketches for the six panels now placed in the Auditorium. Being decidedly modern in his trend, a superb colorist, he conceived a St. Francis without the traditional halo, without the stigmata and insignia that are characteristic of most paintings of this holy man. He represented him as a very human young noble emaciated and ascetic, who had wrestled with the spirit and crucified the flesh. The first sketches were made in Europe and brought to Santa Fe, where in his studio at the west end of the Palace, they were worked over and over. Beauregard too, like St. Francis, wrestled sometimes in veritable agony, to create a masterpiece, but Death took him, just as he had actually begun work on the great panels.

Reverently, lovingly, unselfishly, with faithful adherence as far as possible, to the original sketches, Carlos Vierra and Kenneth M. Chapman of the Art staff of the School of American Research, commissioned by Mr. Springer, took up the work where Beauregard had been compelled by Death to leave it. It was carried out as far as possible in the spirit of Beauregard, but of necessity the artists impressed the work with their own distinctive genius, their own technique, so that it is not difficult to tell which has been completed by Chapman and which by Vierra, and that, without depriving Beauregard of any credit as the master who conceived and planned the work.

Conversion of St. Francis.

This panel, Beauregard found one of the most difficult to compose. He made several sketches but rejected them one after another. He sought to present the moment that St. Francis made his final decision, the moment that he put away definitely the luxury and allurements of his castle at Assisi to embrace the austerity and poverty of monastic life. The St. Francis in the picture idealized his own struggle and his own victory. The panel he worked upon could not be used because of a change in the shape of the niche in which it was to be placed, but the picture in place on the west wall of the auditorium, faithfully reproduces its spirit. It is the most austere, the simplest of them all, and perhaps, few feel its power upon first viewing it. But there is St. Francis kneeling with bare knees upon cold flagstones at the entrance to the convent, above him the crucifix, beyond at one side, a candle that has spluttered low for it is the hour before dawn, in the distance upon the wooded hill, gleams the white castle of Assisi, where St. Francis had left love, luxury, earthly beauties, to take up the cross of the Saviour of Mankind, and follow Him. The intense blue of the starlit Italian sky, gives the panel a note of mystery and silence, which tells more than words can convey. To one side of St. Francis lie the habiliments he has discarded for the coarse gray or brown sackcloth of the Friars. It is a picture to which one wants to return again and again for quiet contemplation.

Renunciation of Santa Clara.

The triple panel at the north end of the western wall, tells of the conversion of Santa Clara and of the healing of the robber who had waylaid and beaten St. Francis. Santa Clara, also of the nobility, was so moved by the saintliness and humility of St. Francis, that she too, discarded her fine rainments in exchange for the coarse habiliments of the Sisterhood she founded blessed wherever poverty, oppression and misery have made their abode. The picture shows on one side, her mother with averted eyes and the entourage of Santa Clara, displaying their horror and contempt. Unseen by them, the three virtues, Poverty, Chastity and Obedience, are ministering to Santa Clara who is enraptured at the heavenly vision vouchsafed her. In the third panel, St. Francis is humbly kneeling at the side of the robber, cleansing his leprous sores. The landscape setting is one of great beauty. The panels on the west of the nave, deal with the life of St. Francis directly. They were completed by X. M. Chapman.

Columbus at La Rabida.

The panel on the west wall of the transept symbolizes the influence of St. Francis on Spain and the Discovery or America. Columbus and his son, after hospitality at the Convent of La Rabida near Palos, Spain, from which port Columbus sailed later on his voyage which transformed the world. It was a Franciscan who was confessor to Queen Isabella, and who pleaded the cause of Columbus at the Spanish Court, at "Santa Fe," the tent city lying below Granada of the Moors. It was at La Rabida, that Columbus had a vision of the three caravels that were to convey him across the Atlantic. Especially effective is the impression through the long vista, such as one gets from the Acoma gallery. Carlos Vierra completed this panel.

Preaching to the Mayas and Aztecs.

The triple panel on the cast wall is an idealization of the Conquests of the Cross in Mexico and Central America. In one panel are depicted the heavily armed Spanish Conquistadores with their lances and banners, their glittering armor and shining helmets, merciless exponents of the military conquest. In another panel are the Indians, with their exotic and dramatic symbols, gathered around their sculptured altar, the leader carrying a pagan staff or scepter, strangely like a crucifix. In the background are the magnificent temples and palaces unlike anything the European world had ever seen. It is a conception of pagan splendor and pageantry on one hand, of military power and haughtiness on the other, and of mercy and pity proclaiming that the visions of the spirit are greater than the triumph of arms. The Columbus painting as well as the two pictures on the east wall were completed by Carlos Vierra.

Building the Missions of New Mexico.

The fifth mural shows the Franciscans building the Missions of New Mexico. In the foreground, are three Franciscan fathers, one of them kneeling on the ground and measuring with calipers the plans spread out before him, while the others look on with evident interest. In the middle ground rise the huge adobe walls pierced by the main entrance to the proposed sanctuary, the carved corbels supporting the viga above the door. Indian women, one with an olla upon her head, are on their way to the pueblo, on the brow of the mesa. In the background are the purple and crimson mountains and shadowy canyons with the glowing vault of the sky above them.

Apotheosis of St. Francis.

Altogether lovely is the triple panel in the chancel, facing the main entrance. St. Francis at the Spring is ministering to "Religion" guarded by “Theology" in sombre garb. Farther to his right, is "Art," a beautiful girl in red. To his left stands "Poetry" gazing heavenward, while the aged sage sitting calmly upon a rock in the foreground is "Philosophy." The woman in yellow holding aloft a charming babe which reaches for the fruit of "Life" is "Society," as it embraces all humanity. This triple panel was completed by Chapman.