St. Francis has gone in and out of style. Before he was a saint, he was the founder of a radical order of mendicant friars set to live like Christ—in poverty and preaching the gospel to anyone who would listen: birds, wolves, infidels, and even the sultan of Egypt. The latter incident, which took place around 1220 during the Fifth Crusade, has been retold and depicted by writers, poets, and artists over the centuries, each adding their own details, depending on the politics of the times. From Bonaventure to Voltaire, the story has been used to glorify the courage and fortitude of Francis and the Roman Catholic Church or, conversely, to show the nobility and wisdom of the Muslim ruler against the Franciscans’ fanaticism. According to John Tolan in his new NEH-supported book, Saint Francis and the Sultan: The Curious History of a Christian–Muslim Encounter, the event has most recently been a call for dialog between Christian and Muslim nations: “Let us walk down the path towards peace, following the example of Saint Francis,” said then Cardinal, now Pope, Joseph Ratzinger in 2002.
It’s not clear that Francis was actually looking for peace when he left the crusaders’ camp near Damietta, on the Nile delta, and ventured into the custody of al-Malik al-Kâmil, the sultan of Egypt. More likely, he was seeking the conversion of souls, most notably the sultan’s, or martyrdom—both clear goals of the early Franciscans. He found neither. The bishop of Acre, Jacques de Vitry, a proponent of the Fifth Crusade, knew Francis and gave this eyewitness account: “He was so inflamed with zeal for the faith that he did not fear to cross the lines of the army of our enemy. For several days he preached the Word of God to the Saracens and made little progress. . . . But ultimately . . . he [al-Kâmil] ordered that Francis be returned to our camp with all reverence and security.” No souls were saved and no tortuous death was claimed—just a peaceful dialog, not out of character for al-Kâmil, who already ruled a land filled with Muslims, Jews, and Christians living together peacefully. (Although after the crusaders captured Damietta, many Muslims were ransomed or sold as slaves: “Jacques himself bought 500 children and had them baptized.”)
The Bardi altarpiece to Saint Francis, dating from the mid thirteenth century, in Florence’s Basilica of Santa Croce was the first altar devoted to the life of a saint and stays faithful to Jacques’s narration. In the bottom left corner Francis preaches to a quietly attentive, seated audience of infidels that includes the sultan. Just above this scene is a frame showing Francis preaching to a flock of birds, similarly arranged and equally attentive. Within a century though, well-intentioned proselytizing was not enough to justify sainthood and the order’s mission. Tolan writes, “There is a struggle for the future of the order, and in this struggle, as often, part of the combat takes place on the field of memory, as all contestants reclaim the heritage of the founding saint.”
Frescoes in the Bardi Chapel, also in the Basilica of Santa Croce, painted by Giotto in the fourteenth century for the powerful banking family for whom the chapel was named, added a trial by fire—literally—to the meeting with the sultan. This new part of the story was put out by Francis’s official biographer, Bonaventure, around 1260 and was also depicted in the fresco cycle in Assisi. In this account, Francis does not actually enter the fire, but the threat of doing so is enough to frighten away the Muslim clerics and impress the sultan with the strength of his faith. This new twist forever changed the nature of Francis’s meeting with the sultan of Egypt. Instead of coming back to camp empty-handed, in this version Francis had his brush with martyrdom and in the process realized a glorious victory. Given the many other ups and downs experienced by Christians throughout the Crusades, it could be declared a triumph.