The animal triad of capital sins in Franciscan iconography

Simona Cohen*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


This study examines two exceptional depictions of St Francis in Glory that appeared in Italian painting of towards the mid 15th century, those of the Venetian miniaturist Cristoforo Cortese and the Sienese painter Sassetta. In both versions St Francis is depicted in a symbolic representation of the stigmatization, with the triad of theological virtues above and three personified sins, accompanied by symbolic animals, below. In the paintings by Cortese and Sassetta a wild boar accompanies the female personification of Luxuria, and a wolf characterizes that of Avaritia. In each version the saint tramples the fallen knight of Superbia, but only Sassetta has included his lion attribute. Several questions are addressed in regard to the animal symbolism and its adaptation to the image of St Francis, inevitably relating to some of the broader problems of Franciscan iconography. The issues of literary and visual precedents for the animal/sin triad in Franciscan iconography and the contemporaneous appearance of this scheme in Venice and Siena are examined. It is demonstrated that depictions of saints, in general, and St Francis, in particular, as the alter Christus, were often shown trampling personified vices in Sienese painting, but these did not include animal depictions. Literary sources for the latter, include Dante's Divina Commedia, and the continued use of beast metaphors from bestiary moralizations and exempla literature in preacher's sermons. A direct connection between Cristoforo Cortese and Sienese ecclesiastical patrons in Venice leads to the assumption that a Sienese precedent of the animal/vice iconography was transmitted to Venice in the early fifteenth century.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)189-198
Number of pages10
StatePublished - 2010


  • Animal symbolism
  • Cristoforo cortese
  • Franciscan iconography
  • Italian painting
  • Saint francis


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