NEW YORK — Franciscans in the New York City metro area have been presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity this month — a chance to view manuscripts that detail St. Francis’s life and the beginnings of the Order.
For the first time in 700 years, 19 artifacts from the Sacred Convent of St. Francis in Assisi will be displayed outside the country —and within five miles of Holy Name Province’s Provincial Office.
The exhibition, “Friar Francis: Traces, Words and Images,” opened Nov. 17 at the United Nations headquarters and will remain there until Nov. 28. Then, the manuscripts will be moved to Brooklyn Borough Hall, where they will be on display for the public until mid-January.
The artifacts, which range in size from a choral book to pocket-sized texts, include Manuscript 338, a collection of medieval writing that contains the famous “Canticle of the Sun.”
Also included are papal bulls regarding the beginnings of the Order that were issued in the 1220s and a text by Ubertino of Casale that interprets the Rule of St. Francis and the poverty of Christ.
The exhibition features a parchment that tells the life of St. Francis, commissioned around the time of his canonization in 1228. A more comprehensive recounting of his life and gestures will also be displayed in a book written in the 1240s by Thomas of Celano.
‘A Great Gift’ to the Franciscan-hearted
St. Francis’s popularity today is undeniable. Roughly six million visitors travel each year to St. Francis Basilica in Assisi to visit St. Francis’s grave. More than 40 percent of them are Americans, according to The New York Times. More than 1.5 million people look at St. Francis’ grave by webcam each month.
“This exhibit is a great gift to the people in the United States,” said Russel Murray, OFM, who is studying in Venice, Italy, this year. “Second only to Italians, more Americans visit Assisi each year than pilgrims from any other nation. In return, the friars are sending a precious piece of Assisi to us for everyone to enjoy.”
Since it was announced that the restoration of the artifacts was nearing completion, some of the most prestigiousmuseums in the world began vying for a chance to host them.
New York City alone boasts the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Morgan Library and Museum, both of which have impressive collections of medieval manuscripts. These cultural institutions would have been well suited to host the Franciscan artifacts.
But the manuscripts have found a temporary home in the humbler Brooklyn Borough Hall instead.
“We wanted a place for the people, and Brooklyn was perfect,” said Antonella Villa of the Associazione Culturale Antiqua in Italy, who is in New York City to organize the display, according to The New York Times. Borough Hall is served by nearly every subway line in the city and is not considered an “elite” or “prestigious” part of New York — something that St. Francis might have appreciated.
“This is not designed to be a blockbuster [exhibition], even though by any standards it would be a coup,” said Steve Acunto, chairman of the Italian Academy Foundation in New York, in The New York Times. “There is no big dinner dance around it, no fundraising going on.”
A Simple, Peaceful Display
In fact, the opening at the United Nations featured “Il Menu de Pellegrino” — a pilgrim’s meal. The United Nations was chosen for the exhibition on Francis “because many Christians hear messages of peace in his life and example,” according to Villa. “We worked hard to run this project in the way of Francis and in our choices, organized it to follow that: simplicity, poverty, communication and peace.”
The manuscripts will be displayed on showcases constructed especially for this exhibition. They have been constructed out of discarded lumber from floor joists, echoing St. Francis’s commitment to caring for creation.
After the exhibition, the manuscripts will be returned to the library at the convent in Assisi. The friars have declined invitations to have the precious artifacts tour the world.
During a news conference in Rome earlier this month, Ken Hackett, the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, spoke of the importance of this exhibition.
“St. Francis was a man, a saint, of the people, who truly stood with those who are the least every day,” he said. “We can see Pope Francis exemplified in his trace, as he puts into practice every day his advocacy for the marginalized and the disadvantaged. This exhibition’s arrival in New York will give Americans the chance to know the history and the spirituality of St. Francis and the chance to be inspired.”
— Maria Hayes is communications coordinator for Holy Name Province.