St Francis receiving the stigmata 1951 also known as 'Stigmata' signed with initial and dated 'N / 51' lower centre oil and ripolin enamel on composition board 122.0 x 91.0cm (48 1/16 x 35 13/16in).
PROVENANCE The collection of the artist W. J. Cliff collection, London, 1957 Fine Australian and European Paintings, Sotheby's, Melbourne, 28 April 1998, lot 6 (illus.) The Reg Grundy AC OBE and Joy Chambers-Grundy Collection, acquired in 1998
EXHIBITED Blake Prize 1952, Mark Foy's Art Gallery, Sydney, 1229 March 1952, cat. no. 38 Sidney Nolan, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, June July 1957, cat. no. 40, titled Stigmata Sidney Nolan: Desert and Drought, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 6 June 17 August 2003, cat. no. 45 (label attached verso)
LITERATURE Colin MacInnes, Bryan Robertson, et al, Sidney Nolan, exh. cat., Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, p. 21, pl. IX (illus.) Kenneth Clark, Colin MacInnes, Bryan Robertson, Nolan, Thames and Hudson, London, 1961/1967, p. 98, pl. 41 (illus.) Elwyn Lynn, Sidney Nolan: Myth and Imagery, Macmillan, London, 1967, p. 34, titled Stigmata Geoffrey Smith, et al, Sidney Nolan: Desert and Drought, exh. cat., National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, pp. 83-86, 86 (illus.), 151
In the summer of 1951 and 1952, Sidney Nolan worked on a new series of large paintings combining bird's eye views of a lunar outback landscape in Central Australia remembered from aeroplane trips taken in 1949 and 1950, and religious themes absorbed in museums and chapels on a whirlwind car tour of France, Spain, Portugal and Italy in the European winter of 1950-51. This amalgam of Saint and Angel in a cratered landscape was a new direction for Nolan, his previous acclaimed series of forty-seven majestic Central Australian landscapes being 'unpeopled immensities of wind-worn rock and bitter soil.'1
Nolan remembered just how astonished he was by the immensity of the Australian outback when he wrote to Geoffrey Dutton in 1967 about his Burke and Wills paintings of 1949:
I doubt that I will ever forget my emotions when first flying over Central Australia and realizing how much we painters and poets owe to our predecessors the explorers, with their frail bodies and superb willpower.2
Cynthia Nolan also recorded her impressions on their first journey to the outback made with her new husband and daughter Jinx between June and September 1948:
The local trips with the mail planes were helping us to find our air legs and once more, as the night faded, we set off for the aerodrome. By seven-thirty the Dragon Rapide was flying over the jumbled mass of the MacDonnell Ranges, to come down at Arltunga and at Ambalindum, then speed over hills like children's pointed sandcastles. The dawning light was like apricot gauze.3
St Francis receiving the stigmata 7 December 1951 is the first in a series of seven religious paintings intended for a future exhibition which did not eventuate.4 Together with Flight into Egypt (finished two days later on 9 December 1951), St Francis receiving the stigmata was exhibited in the 1952 Blake Prize. Awarded third prize, Flight into Egypt employed Nolan's visually gymnastic tricks used in the past, by inserting an upside-down winged Angel floating over the holy family in a rocky landscape.
The notion of introducing floating, levitating figures in the landscape was not a new idea for Nolan; Chagall was an inspiration for the upside-down policeman thrown by his horse in Death of Constable Scanlon 1946, part of the Ned Kelly series made five years earlier at Heide. Originally titled simply Stigmata, the story of the marks of the cross appearing on St Francis was inspired by Nolan's visit to Assisi where he saw Giotto's Legend of St Francis frescoes on his thirteen week tour of the Mediterranean in 1950-51.5
The Franciscan Cycle in the Upper Basilica of St Francis in Assisi comprises a series of twenty-eight scenes arranged in groups of three per bay on the lower half of the walls on both sides of the nave and the end wall on either side of the doorway. Virtually tourist free in 1951, Nolan would have been able to see bay 38, The Stigmata, without much difficulty. Giotto depicted St Francis kneeling besides a chapel, his hands cupped open, looking up at the crucified seraphim. According to Edi Baccheschi who wrote the catalogue of the Complete paintings of Giotto, the iconography of the cycle is based on the Legenda maior by St Bonaventure written between 1260 and 1263 from oral tradition and earlier biographies of the saint. 'While the blessed Francis was praying on Mount Verna, he saw Christ in the form a crucified seraphim, [Angel] who impressed on his hands and feet and in his right side, the marks of the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ.'
A second series of seven frescoes on the Legend of St Francis by Giotto and his workshop is also found in the Bardi Chapel, the Basilica de Santa Croce, Florence, surely also visited by Nolan. Baccheschi notes that the entire cycle was whitewashed over in the eighteenth century and it was not rediscovered until 1852. 'In 1937, it proved possible to restore the fresco featuring the Stigmata of St Francis on the archway almost to its original condition.'6 Unlike today, when all seven frescoes are fully restored and open to the public7, it was then the only fresco having undergone restoration. This composition is based on the Assisi fresco, however it is more unified and complex with a kneeling St Francis looking backwards up to the sky where the seraphim beams the golden rays of the stigmata towards the upturned arms and hands, feet and torso of the Saint. Nolan's interpretation is also composed to exploit the diagonal, the levitating Christ's wounds dripping on the red earth where rose flowers are in bloom beside a worshipping bare-footed St Francis.
1 James Gleeson, 'Landscapes triumph for Aust. Artist', The Sun, Sydney, 31 March 1950 quoted in Jane Clark, Sidney Nolan: Landscapes and Legends, National Gallery of Victoria, Cambridge University Press and International Cultural Corporation of Australia Limited, 1987, p. 109 2 Geoffrey Dutton, 'Sidney Nolan's Burke and Wills Series', Art and Australia, vol. 5, no. 2, September 1967, 'Nolan Issue', pp. 455-459 3 Quoted in Cynthia Nolan, Outback, Methuen & Co Limited, London, 1962, pp. 40-41 4 Nolan had wanted to exhibit the series at David Jones' Gallery, Sydney in October 1952. See Geoffrey Smith, Sidney Nolan: Desert and Drought, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 84, The chapter on Religion illustrates all seven religious paintings from 1951-52 and is the only source for this aspect of Nolan's oeuvre. 5 Geoffrey Smith, op. cit., p. 83 and Barry Pearce, Sidney Nolan, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2007, p. 243 6 Edi Baccheschi, 'Notes and Catalogue', in Andrew Martindale, The Complete Paintings of Giotto, Classics of World Art, George Weidenfeld and Nicolson Ltd, London 1969, p. 116 and p. 90, pp. 93-94 7 See www.casasantapia.com/art/giotto/santacrocebardichapel.htm#1