Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Saint Francis de Sales Doctor of the Church

Charles Mellin (1597–1649) 
Saint François de Sales en extase
St Francis de Sales in ecstasy
Oil on canvas
Musée historique lorrain, Nancy

Although trained in Lorraine, Mellin spent his whole career in Italy

He was chosen over Poussin and Lanfranco to decorate the chapel of the Virgin in the church of Saint-Louis-des-Français in Rome

He became the official painter of the Marquis Muti Papazzurri for whom he decorated a palace

Like Georges de la Tour, he was forgotten and has now been rediscovered

St Francis de Sales was renowned in his time and has never gone out of fashion. He certainly has never fallen into obscurity

St Francis de Sales, Doctor of the Church is known and renowned for many things and writings in his too short life (1567 – 28 December 1622)

As a mystic, he is perhaps not as well knnown

In his catechesis on the Life of St Francis de Sales, Pope Benedict touched on this aspect of the Doctor`s life

"The ideal of a reconciled humanity was expressed in the harmony between prayer and action in the world, between the search for perfection and the secular condition, with the help of God’s grace that permeates the human being and, without destroying him, purifies him, raising him to divine heights. To Theotimus, the spiritually mature Christian adult to whom a few years later he addressed his Treatise on the Love of God,  St Francis de Sales offered a more complex lesson. 
At the beginning it presents a precise vision of the human being, an anthropology: human “reason”, indeed “our soul in so far as it is reasonable”, is seen there as harmonious architecture, a temple, divided into various courts around a centre, which, together with the great mystics he calls the “extremity and summit of our soul, this highest point of our spirit”. 
This is the point where reason, having ascended all its steps, “closes its eyes” and knowledge becomes one with love (cf. Book I, chapter XII). The fact that love in its theological and divine dimension, may be the raison d’être of all things, on an ascending ladder that does not seem to experience breaks or abysses, St Francis de Sales summed up in a famous sentence: “man is the perfection of the universe; the spirit is the perfection of man; love, that of the spirit; and charity, that of love” (ibid., Book X, chap. 1). 
In an intensely flourishing season of mysticism The Treatise on the Love of God was a true and proper summa and at the same time a fascinating literary work. 
St Francis’ description of the journey towards God starts from recognition of the “natural inclination” (ibid., Book 1, chapter XVI), planted in man’s heart — although he is a sinner — to love God above all things. 
According to the model of Sacred Scripture, St Francis de Sales speaks of the union between God and man, developing a whole series of images and interpersonal relationships. His God is Father and Lord, husband and friend, who has the characteristics of mother and of wet-nurse and is the sun of which even the night is a mysterious revelation. Such a God draws man to himself with bonds of love, namely, true freedom for: “love has neither convicts nor slaves, but brings all things under its obedience with a force so delightful, that as nothing is so strong as love nothing also is so sweet as its strength” (ibid., Book 1, chapter VI). 
In our Saint’s Treatise we find a profound meditation on the human will and the description of its flowing, passing and dying in order to live (cf. ibid. Book IX, chapter XIII) in complete surrender not only to God’s will but also to what pleases him, to his “bon plaisir”, his good pleasure (cf. ibid., Book IX, chapter I). 
As well as by raptures of contemplative ecstasy, union with God is crowned by that reappearance of charitable action that is attentive to all the needs of others and which he calls “the ecstasy of action and life” (ibid., Book VII, chapter VI). 
In reading his book on the love of God and especially his many letters of spiritual direction and friendship one clearly perceives that St Francis was well acquainted with the human heart. He wrote to St Jane de Chantal: 
“... this is the rule of our obedience, which I write for you in capital letters: do all through love, nothing through constraint; love obedience more than you fear disobedience. I leave you the spirit of freedom, not that which excludes obedience, which is the freedom of the world, but that liberty that excludes violence, anxiety and scruples” (Letter of 14 October 1604).
It is not for nothing that we rediscover traces precisely of this teacher at the origin of many contemporary paths of pedagogy and spirituality; without him neither St John Bosco nor the heroic “Little Way” of St Thérèse of Lisieux would have have come into being."


Thanks to hard detective work by my blog pal Terry Nelson of Abbey Roads it would appear that the proper identity of the picture above has been identified. See comments below

It would appear that the subject of the picture is not St Francis de Sales but probably St. Francis of Paola at prayer

Apologies for the error. However if anyone has any more information to definitively identify the subject and the artist that would be most welcome

Thanks once again to Terry for his hard work


  1. Terry - wonderful post as usual - but do you think the attribution to St. Francis de Sales could be an error by the museum? I ask because St. Francis is shown in the habit of a professed Franciscan friar. He may have been a tertiary or cord bearer, but it seems strange to represent him as a friar. Especially since he is so often depicted in art as bishop and I believe some images may have been living portraits. What do you think. On occasion I find museums have missed in their attributions and when contacted they tell me they inserted the wrong photo or something. I may be wrong. Thanks.

    1. Thank you, Terry. I wondered about the attribution to St Francis de Sales too. I tried to find out more about the painting before putting up the post but hit a dead end. There`s not much on this particular work. Looking at the date of the painting, this would be part of the early iconography of the soon to be saint possibly while he was still "blessed" rather than saint. The artist had close connections to the French community in Rome and was commissioned to do major work for the French national church in Rome, Saint-Louis-des-Français. I`ll need to do more research but I wonder if the early cult of St Francis de Sales depicted him as another St Francis of Assisi especially as he seemed to be a mystic and visionary. I`ll come back to you on this. If you find out any more I`d certainly be interested. Kind regards, Terry

  2. Oh thanks - I'm glad you don't mind - I love mysteries like this. It is difficult for me to search the artist or to find any catalog for the museum.

    At first I wondered if the saint was a Franciscan but I do not see the cord - as I study it - he is wearing a rosary and it looks as if he may be wearing a scapular as well - which suggests a Carmelite. I can't make out what the cherub is pointing to, nor what the others are up to. I wondered if it was Simon Stock because the attitude of prayer is similar other depictions of the apparition of Our Lady. I'm not convinced however.

  3. Now I wonder if it could be the Carmelite bishop, St. Peter Thomas - Born in Perigod, France, around 1305. Sorry to bother - no need to print these comments.

  4. Found it! St. Francis of Paola at prayer - the site had a typo when they entered Mellin's first name - Chrales Mellin.

    Thanks for letting me do this - I considered Francis of Paola but thought against it since the Minims scapular was shorter - but it can vary I suppose.

    God bless you Terry - I love your blog!

  5. Hi Terry

    Sorry I didn`t get back sooner to you to thank you but I have been away

    Yes it would appear that you have solved this mystery. Well done. Do please do an email to the museum in France, the Musée historique lorrain, Nancy and tell them. Someone obviously has made a mistake in attribution. They will give you the appropriate credit

    The problem is we cannot get access to the catalogue of the Museum online to check. I don`t thin there is a catalogue raisonne of the artist either and it would appear that there have been a number of attributions to him simply on stylistic grounds and not on any other grounds

    It would be interesting to know the grounds for the Museum attributing the work to the artist as well as the title

    I did however look up the life of St Francis de Sales and it does appear that there is a strong connection with St Francis of Assisi. It would appear that he was named after him. Like St Francis he gave up his great inheritance against his father`s wishes to take up his vocation. There would also appear to be other incidents in the saint`s life where there is a connection with the poverello

    BTW I love your blog too