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Posted June 29, 2004

Book: Salvation: Scenes from the life of St. Francis
Author: Valerie Martin
Alfred A. Knoff, New York, pp.268  

Excerpt from Jacket:

The acclaimed author of Italian Fever and Mary Reilly takes a unique approach to biography in a fascinating work that enters directly into the world of the man who is at once the most radical and one of the most beloved of all Christian saints.  

Inspired by the fresco cycles that depict the life of St. Francis of Assisi, Valerie Martin tells of the life of Francesco di Pietro Barnardone in a series of vividly realized “panels” of moments both ordinary and crucial: on the road, in the company of friends, alone in his meditations.  She draws from myriad sources, including Francesco’s own words, and has arranged these scenes thematically, in the manner of the early hagiographies, moving roughly backward in time.

We begin with the dying Francesco and the rivalry for this body among the towns of medieval Italy.  The old friar, exhausted by illness and the divisions within his brotherhood, gives way to the zealous missionary who joins the Fifth Crusade, confident that he can convert the Egyptian sultan.  We see the unwashed and innocent revolutionary, unafraid to lecture a pope on Christ’s message; his mystical friendship with Chirara di Offreducci, a nobleman’s daughter who turns her back on the world to join him; and finally, the frivolous young Francesco on the deserted road where his encounter with a leper leads him to an ecstatic embrace of God.  

Salvation is at once a window into the medieval world whose physicality and purity have never been rendered with such visceral power, and a dazzlingly original portrait of the man whose legend has resonated through the centuries.  

An Excerpt from the book:

From what I have been able to learn about him, San Francesco viewed this world largely as a placement test for the next.  Like any brilliant and willing student, he was entirely absorbed in the business of the test.  He began by concentrating the enormous energy of his will upon his own salvation, but by the time he died, he intended to lead a multitude into heaven and to take the next world by storm. His great work, as much a work of art as the many paintings and statutes that celebrate it, was his life.  

Like most tourists, when I sought out the paintings illustrating the life of San Francesco, I just wanted to see the art; the story was incidental.  But that story, so sorrowful and triumphant, seemed to reach out from the walls and ceilings and grasp me by the shoulders.  At Assisi, Montefalco, Florence, Rome, Arezzo, the ragged, barefoot beggar cried out to me: This is what I made of my life! Now go out and change your own!  

Table of Contents:

On his death

On his illness

On the stigmata

On his teaching

On his simplicity

On his travels to the Holy Land

On his brotherhood

On the poor ladies

On his youth and conversion