But we had not yet seen one of the greatest of Della Robbia’s works. This was the large altar-piece in the tiny chapel opposite the monastery gate. The brothers were at prayer there, and we had scruples. These were waived as ridiculous by our cicerone, who, unlocking the gate, escorted us into the dark inner chapel, and, lighting a huge candle, gave us sight of this exquisite and precious work. It is an Assumption of the Virgin with attendant saints and angels – St. Bonaventura receiving from the Virgin the measure for the making of the chapel. A curious adaptation, probably, of the gift of the holy girdle. The spirituality of the faces and the tenderness of the whole terra-cotta made one feel that the artist, Andrea della Robbia, was determined, from love of St. Francis, to excel himself in this work. But I could hardly give my mind to the white faces against the blue ground before me, for other faces almost as moveless against their brown background all round about me. There, with countenances expressionless, vacant, sullen, and sometimes coarse, knelt in silence, as they had knelt for the best part of an hour, the young Franciscans, each in his allotted place, each a prisoner of the Lord, who seemed a prisoner of man, for they were under lock and key. Some had pulled their brown hoods over their heads for warmth’s sake, and I saw nothing of their countenances; others gazed upwards as if in a kind of trance; others stared straight into vacancy. This prayer-hour was part of each monkish day’s work – one of the rules of the order; but it was painful to witness – tragic in its non-fulfilment of the essential reasonableness of prayer, and pathetic in its apparent failure to obtain its end. The sullenness of these young men’s faces, the sort of caged wild-beast look in their eyes, gave one the feeling that here was fanaticism of a certain order, doubtless, but that the love and sympathy for all living creatures which St. Francis taught could not take root in such soil, nor find food-time nor flower-time in such sunless air. (p. 417)
We issued from the chapel, the jailer locked his silent prisoners to their prayers, and we went out into the chill afternoon air. We would seek the liberty of the forest; we would climb the mountain-ridge; we would wander where St. Francis had wandered, where Massco had seen his visions, and where Brother John of Fermo had in his sorrow met the Lord. A servant of the monastery, with a fox-looking face and a broken spirit, wobbled along in front of us as guide; took us by a difficult path for an hour’s walk through a forest of beech and pine, whose quiet was broken only by the thud of the wood-cutter’s axe, and now and again by the cry of a woodpecker. We climbed 1200 feet: so dense and airless was the forest that it was tiring work. The path was cut up deeply by wheels of the woodman’s waggon, and we were scarcely rewarded for our trudge. There was no wide expanse of view when we gained the broken tower or outlook 4165 feet above sea-level. Far down below us grey and green lay the furrow of the lonely vale, the cradle of the Arno, without sign of man’s habitation; a troubled sea of ridges of violet grey rolled towards the north and east, featureless and grim, and hid from sight the birthplace of the Tiber. We left off gazing and walked along the ridges in a westerly direction, and in twenty minutes’ time looked down over precipitous crags that gave us a wider view of the more open country east of the monastery cliff. A falcon was seen to leave a ledge below us, and we heard a blackbird’s voice. Thence back through the dark woods we came, back through the monastery farm-buildings, in time to find that the faithful monk Cleto had spread his coarse cloth in the little refectory, and was anxiously waiting for us to take our seats that he might bring in the soup. (pp. 417-8)
The dinner cannot be described; for after the soup of bread sopped in saltish water had disappeared, a strange dish was served. Cleto was proud of it, but could not explain it; only as he sighed deeply he would with his finger indicate with pride the choicest morsel, and urge us to gird up the loins of our appetite thereto. One of my friends believes to this day that the dish was “monastery mice in batter.” Certainly there were little tailed creatures mixed up with what, after all, may have been artichoke fragments fried in pasta. We stuck to our coarse bread and the coarser wine, which was part of some poor neighbouring farmer’s offering to the monastery, and waited till the next course. It was the last: it seemed to consist of fragments of a pickled shoulder of mutton which had on some former occasion been shorn of most of its meat. Tough, stringy, knobby bits of muscle and fibre were scraped away and laid by the side of the bone and handed round. We took it, for by the light in Cleto’s face and his deeper sigh this was something special – a treat only for princes. Poor Cleto! as he sighed I remembered that here at Alvernia St. Francis had sighed before him, and, much tempted in the body of the devil, had lost his accustomed cheerfulness. What form of temptation poor Cleto was undergoing I know not; but sight of mice in batter, and the last fragments of the last mutton bone in a monastery where meat is forbidden, may have been a sorrow’s crown of sorrow. (p. 418)….
At eight o’clock the monk with the lantern came to escort the ladies beyond the precincts, and at nine another monk came to lead us of the sterner sex down through the cloisters at the back of the chapel that served as the resting-place of baggage-mules, and smelt of the stable, on to a second or interior cloister, in the upper corridor of which our resting-place was found. We stumbled on over sledges and ploughs and cart apparatus, and gained the stairway; thence entered a corridor hung with cheap prints of scenes in the French Revolution, and were ushered to an apartment that was next door to a similar one which had sheltered royalty. The key was given to us, the candle was lit, and we saw the two huge piles of balloon-like mattress and blanketing, and the two tiny basins and towels, which, with six inches of mirror, was the furniture of the best spare room the monastery could afford. We were soon asleep, grateful for the simple cleanliness and chance of warmth, and too tired to be waked by the sound of the midnight bell that called our friends from their slumbers for their procession to the Chapel of the Stigmata. (p. 419)
Next morning the swifts screamed so loud as to rouse us from sleep. We went into the cold cloud that hung in drizzle of fine rain upon the monastery court. We envied the monks their great frieze gown sleeves as we took our seats in the chill refectory. That morning was occupied in watching the ordinary life of the brotherhood. It was a festa, and peasants came crowding up the steep stone stairway for the dole of bread that would certainly be theirs. I never quite realised the worth of a loaf of coarse bread as joy-maker till I saw the light come into the faces of some of the women at the monastery gate, and watched them scamper back down the steep stairs to bear it to their dwelling far away. Blessed Francis, how his sad face would have been a moment less sad to see that sight, and to know that, more than six and a half centuries after he left La Verna for ever, La Verna still cares for the poor and fills the hungry with bread! (p. 419)….
No wonder St. Francis found many devils to fight at that mountain retreat, though he fought them well. Brother Leo has chronicled for us how “at that time when in the sacred mountain of Alvernia he received the stigmata of the Lord, St. Francis suffered such temptations in his body and tribulations that he was not able to appear as cheerful as was his wont”; and he said to his friend, “If the brethren knew what and how great tribulations and afflictions the demons make for me, there is not one of them who would not be moved with compassion and pity concerning me.” I did not know what troubles Brother Cleto had to endure, but from the depths of my heart I pitied that man; and his joyless and careworn face haunts me still. Nor could one get rid of the thought that there in that mountain-hold—“that devout and solitary place,” as Count Orlando called it, where, as the chronicler Thomas de Celano tells us, St. Francis learned “that through much anguish and many struggles he should enter the kingdom,”—there had been once born noble thoughts to help the world, and noble thoughts that might still help it, for the call to holy poverty is as loud to-day as ever. But the great souls that there first received the holy fire of their consecration to the pattern of Christ, these had passed away. There was no Francis now, no Brother Leo, no Frate Angelo, no James of Massa nor John of Fermo, to go from their fortress of prayer to make a dead religion stand upon its feet and shake Europe into spiritual being. Yes, as in thought one stands once again upon that high convent terrace of La Verna, it is not only the sad face of Cleto that haunts one, it is the music of the past that saddens,
Vague and forlorn,
As from an infinitely distant land,
Come airs and floating echoes, and
A Melancholy into all our day. (p. 421)
(Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 164 (September 1898), 410-21)