Fire and light are the central imagery in Brother Robert’s icon of St. Francis and the Sultan. Even the orange background of the icon serves to highlight the flames that surround the two men. There is no way to understand his icon apart from these flames.
Flames for most Christians speak of punishment in hell. The Book of the Apocalypse is filled with flames of destruction at the end of the world, and Christian history is smoky with the flames of religious wars and the Inquisition. Tongues of flame appeared above the disciples gathered in the upper room on Pentecost, however, when the Holy Spirit descended upon them and the Church was born. Mystics like St. John of the Cross have written of flames of divine love they have encountered in prayer, and the Franciscan poet, Dante, felt ice, rather than fire, best described the nature of hell, where there is no love. In Islamic art, golden flames surround the heads of angels and holy humans to express sanctity, just as round halos of light surround the heads of Christian saints. All these memories lie beneath the flames in this icon.
In literature about St. Francis and the Fifth Crusade there is another significant reference to fiery flames. Bonaventure introduces a story in which St. Francis challenges Islamic holy men to a trial by fire in the sultan’s presence. The story does not occur in earlier Franciscan documents, or in accounts by Jacques de Vitry and crusaders who were present in Egypt at that time. Once told by Bonaventure, however, it was repeated for centuries. Franciscan censors destroyed whatever other earlier biographies they could find.
Within decades after the death of St. Francis, his followers were heavily involved in promoting future Crusades. Some went to Muslim lands and provoked their own murders by insulting Islam publically, with the thought of becoming martyrs. In 1453, a priest famous for helping reform the Franciscan Order—St. John Capistrano—actually led a military crusade against Muslims. There are many paintings of this friar holding a raised sword and wearing armor over his religious habit. In the old mission bearing his name, near San Antonio, Texas, his statue not only wears armor, but the saint is actually stepping on the bloody body of a slain Muslim soldier.
Serious historians now reject Bonaventure’s story of the ordeal by fire. They have recovered earlier accounts that indicate a peaceful, fruitful conversation between Malik al-Kamil and Francis that may have lasted longer than a week. They point to Francis’ own writings that his friars ignored for centuries, in which there are clear indications that he was deeply impressed by Islamic piety. The question remains why Bonaventure and others steered attention away from this remarkable behavior of the saint.
While the Franciscan movement spread like wild fire in thirteenth-century Europe, it was by no means universally popular. Bishops and the diocesan clergy regarded the new mendicants with suspicion, bordering on hostility. After a thousand years of accommodation with Caesar, Francis and his first followers had stepped to one side and begun once again to live the Gospel simply. Their way of life challenged the wealth and worldly power that shored up medieval Catholicism. Some churchmen felt so threatened by their example that they condemned Franciscan poverty as a heresy.
Today this sounds ridiculous. We admire prophetic figures like Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa of Calcutta who went among the poorest members of society and shared their lot. Mother Teresa has already been canonized, and Dorothy Day’s cause for canonization is being considered by Rome. During her lifetime, however, Dorothy said this about canonization: “Don’t call me a saint! I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”
In a 2013 book review in The New Yorker, Joan Acocella spoke in a similar way about St. Francis: “For the Church, Francis was too revered not to claim, too radical not to neutralize.” Faced with hostility on many sides, Bonaventure, as minister general of the Franciscans, toned down much of what had been prophetic in Francis’ life. By neutralizing what was too radical, he assured a future for his Order, and the Order gradually fell in line with the politics of its day.
In this icon, Brother Robert has taken the flames from Bonaventure’s story and raised them above the ground so that they have become an Islamic “halo” behind Francis and the sultan. In the midst of these flames, traditional Christian halos also surround the heads of the two men. Both the flames and the round halos are fashioned from the same 23-karat gold leaf, since divine light is one. The days the two men spent together in holy dialog were bathed with this light, as each one spoke of God, learning how filled the other already was with God’s light.
Francis dated his conversion from the day he embraced a leper on the road outside Assisi, but he was only able to kiss that leper because of the dark months he had spent earlier in a dungeon in Perugia. During those months the world centered falsely on his ego had slowly fallen to pieces. From leper to leper, from mud-slinging street urchins in the streets of Assisi to robbers in forests, throughout his life Francis grew in this ability to embrace the “other,” learning ways to confront what was dark and threatening, both in himself and beyond. Standing apart from the prejudices of one’s culture is never an easy thing, especially when these prejudices are enforced from on high. Walking through Crusader battle lines to speak peacefully with Muslim enemies was in fact an ordeal by fire for Francis, but an ordeal quite different from the one invented by Bonaventure.
Destructive religious flames, both present and from the past, are a problem that faces us today, a problem that threatens the entire human race. The true story of Francis and the sultan holds archetypal power for our strife-torn world. As Francis learned to walk through flames like these, so, for us, the only way out is to walk through them—trusting that what is true in us, what reflects God in us and belongs to God, will remain unscathed.