- Posted by Amy Bell
- On June 16, 2023
Anna Swinfield, a BSS newly elected BritishSpanish Society Trustee, interviews Dr Joost Joustra, the Ahmanson Research Associate Curator in Art and Religion at The National Gallery, on the first major art exhibition in the UK to explore the life and legacy of Saint Francis of Assisi (1182–1226), one of history’s most inspirational and revered figures.
In a world of instant gratification and computer art staging a highly ambitious exhibition about a 12th century saint was always going to be challenging. Joost Joustra, however, is something of an expert in promoting profound and complex religious subjects to a global, questioning, and increasingly secular audience.
The same can be said of as the exhibition’s co-curator, National Gallery Director, Dr Gabriele Finaldi, who was Deputy Director for Collections and Research from 2002 – 2015 at the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, and enduring friend of the BSS. The Dutch-born Joustra is well qualified, having studied, like his boss, at The Courtauld Institute of Art where he gained his MA and PHD,and also lectured in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at King’s College, London.
He is this the author of Sin: The Art of Transgression, in which he draws on paintings from the National Gallery and elsewhere, and contemporary art and culture to explore complex theological ideas, and the process shows how art can blur the boundaries between religious and secular.
Joustra’s focus this time is on Giovani di Petro di Bernardone – one of the most loved of all the saints – and rather better known as the Catholic friar and mystic, Francis of Assisi who, among myriad other achievements, founded the Franciscan Order. Usually painted in a brown robe with a belt fashioned from rope, for 800 years his counsel, his love of animals and nature, his caring for the poor and downtrodden, has made him one of the most venerated figures in Christianity.
The Francis of Assisi exhibition opened to the public on the 6th of May 2023. Joustra confirms that it is proving immensely popular. “Most of The National Gallery exhibitions are free,” Joustra says, “which helps to attract crowds. People are also, of course, curious about the theme. We’re very busy indeed.”
The current Pope not only took the name Francis but showed the extent to which he was inspired by one the saint’s canticles Laudato Si, the title of a seminal encyclical published in 2015 lamenting environmental degradation and global warming and calling for swift and unified global action in defence of the ‘common home.’
Perhaps the fact that Francis is so revered has helped to popularise the event. It assists any curator if the person and subject being showcased is already internationally known and cherished. But to ensure success a major art exhibition needs more than a star figure at its core. A garnering of the finest work is also crucial.
Here there are depictions from across the National Gallery’s collection – by Sassetta, Botticelli, Zurbarán. International loans feature brilliantly accomplished works by Caravaggio, Murillo and El Greco. Modern offerings include work by Stanley Spencer; the sculptor, and by Sir Antony Gormley – best known for his majestic Angel of the North in Gateshead. Also featured is the 2017 Turner prize winner, German born Andrea Büttner. The important Italian Arte Povera movement is represented by one of its foremost exponents, Giuseppe Penone, and there’s a commission by another Turner prize winner, the distinguished land artist and sculptor, Sir Richard Long.
Joustra is well versed in fending off occasional flak which can wing its way towards any curator. The Times art critic, for instance, wrote that it was a rather ‘brown exhibition’ and was mildly critical. Joustra, ever charming and helpful, laughs it off: “There’s always one, Anna!”
The exhibition brings together over 40 works spanning more than 700 years. There’s even a Marvel comic published in the 1980s. Marvel and comic books are a cultural force (cinema visitor numbers and superheroes are among the top 10 films). They’ve always had a significant place in American artistic life. When Joustra discovered that there was a Marvel comic about Saint Francis he was intrigued. About 800,000 copies were printed.
“It’s not a highly collectible comic book. Some are but this one isn’t. I managed to get my hands on one by buying it online through a comic book dealer in Texas,” he says. The Marvel-Assisi story began with a suggestion by two Franciscan friars who met Marvel’s representatives in Tokyo. ‘The friars asked the Marvel guy if he’d considered a comic book on St Francis. He hadn’t, but realised Francis was an original superhero character – ordinary men and women doing extraordinary things. It was logical and became a huge success,’ Justra tells me.
Francis was humble, moving among the poor and the needy. He speaks to the public imagination at time of hardened economic circumstances and a widening disparity between very rich and very poor. When Francis was canonised in 1226, two years after his death, images became widespread. It’s thought that in the first century after his death, some 20,000 depictions existed. Images of him preaching to birds and animals are commonplace. The earliest English object is a manuscript from Cambridge made by Matthew Perez.
How do you promote a Saint in a world dominated by the likes of Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst with their unmade beds and animals pickled in formaldehyde? I asked Joustra if there was a danger in a world of Netflix, TikTok and Instagram that Francis and good efforts to promote him will fall on deaf ears. He was firm in his response: “Francis is the antidote to that. People long for authenticity and more reflection. He is the saint who has opened my eyes to a lot more around me. I’ve always been keen on the natural world but when I started studying Francis and visiting Umbria, I noticed the birds a lot more, their presence, their sounds, where the sun comes up over the Umbrian valley, the presence of the moon. All these things that Francis talked about. He’s a great saint for that.
The show is not aimed at attracting only historians or experts in religious art. It’s for everyone, totally ‘In the Spirit of Francis.’” Today’s artists use computers, often employing teams of woodworkers, steelworkers, welders. Not much has changed, explains Joustra: ‘Look at the great Fresco cycle by Giotto and his studio, his collaborators in Assisi. It was very much a team effort. You had one artist, the master of the studio, but many other artists and craftsmen were involved. It was a common effort. The idea of having a singular genius making something is not as common as something being collaborative in art.’
St Luke is the Patron Saint of artists, doctors, and surgeons. Given the crisis in the NHS I wondered if it wouldn’t be an appropriate time to stage an exhibition about St Luke. “I think that’s a very intriguing idea and one I am interested to explore. Neil McGregor (British art historian, director National Gallery 1987-2002) had an exhibition called “Seeing Salvation” about Christ and Art. Then there was “The Sacred made Real” about C17th Spanish works of Art.
“I currently have an exhibition touring the country called “Sin,” bringing together works of art from Bruegel and Velazquez to Andy Warhol and Tracey Emin. All these projects on religious themes are part of the National Gallery’s DNA, and I can’t promise you this is the last Saint we will address in an exhibition! Saint Clare of Assisi, one of the first followers of Saint Francis, also plays an important role here, so her presence is definitely filled,” Joustra says.
If Francis had grown up somewhere not quite as exquisite as Assisi, would he have been a different person?
“He was certainly a product of his environment. Medieval Europe in the early 13th century was not a place as we know it. There was a lot of nature, and the dangers of nature were a lot more present.” The ‘Wolf of Gubbio’ is famous in the story of Saint Francis. Folk were frightened of being eaten by the wolf, but Francis was not afraid. You can see images in the exhibition. Francis calms the wolf, and the people start to love and trust the wolf and look after him. He is fed well. It’s a beautiful, moving story, and as highly relevant today as in the 1220s when it began to circulate.
Clearly, Assisi was put on the map by Francis. When Joustra and Finaldi travelled there in preparation for the exhibition, its people were delighted that London’s internationally admired National Gallery, was doing something for Assisi, for Umbria, and the populace tied so intimately to a powerful legacy.
The exhibition is utterly fascinating. Like St. Francis it has both authenticity and credibility, and most importantly, it’s wonderfully accessible. My recommendation? Call in at the National. Indulge yourself for a few wonderful hours!
The Francis of Assisi exhibition is at The National Gallery, London until 30 July 2023. There will be a private talk by Dr Joost Joustra for BSS members prior to a visit to the exhibition on June 21st at 4 pm. (see Save the Date) . For details contact Lisa Chambers email@example.com