Still from chapter 8 of Roberto Rossellini’s Francesco, giullare di Dio (Francis, God’s Jester, 1950)

Franciscan Grotesquerie

… [Francis of Assisi]’s public appearances … are always impressive, graphic, and indeed scenic. The anecdotes which relate them are very numerous, and among them there are some which strike later taste as almost grotesque or even farcical; as when we are told that, celebrating Christmas in the stable at Greccio, with ox and ass and praesepium, both in singing and preaching he pronounced the word Bethlehem in imitation of a bleating lamb; or that after an illness in the course of which he had taken some choicer food, upon his return to Assisi he ordered one of the brothers to lead him through the town on a rope, as though he were a criminal, shouting: Behold the glutton who crammed his belly full of chicken behind your backs! But in their time and place such scenes did not produce a farcical effect. Their arrestingness, exaggeration, vividness did not appear shocking, but as a graphic, exemplary revelation of a saintly life, directly illuminating, comprehensible to all, and inspiring all to examine themselves in comparison and to share in the experience. …

The saint’s manner of life and expression was taken over by the Order and produced a very peculiar atmosphere. In both the good and bad sense, it became extremely popular. The excess of drastic vigor of expression made of the friars the creators, and soon too the subject, of dramatic, witty, and frequently coarse and obscene anecdotes. The coarser realism of the later Middle Ages is often linked to the activity and appearances of the Franciscans. Their influence in this direction can be traced down to the Renaissance. …

—Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946), ch. 7 “Adam and Eve”, tr. Willard R. Trask, Princeton University Press, 2003, pp. 168-170.

I have seen that “peculiar atmosphere” in the contemporary church: both the “exemplary revelation of the saintly life” and the “farce”. What a fine blade fits between the two: the difference between being wise as serpents and innocent as doves. I don’t think I could say what it is, but there seems to be a lot riding on it. Maybe it simply is gratitude in both the observer and the “performer”.

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