Inspired by the fresco cycles that depict the life of St. Francis of Assisi, acclaimed author Valerie Martin tells the life of Francesco di Pietro Bernardone in a series of vividly realized “panels” of moments both crucial and ordinary. Drawing from myriad sources and moving in reverse chronological order, she begins in the dark, final days, with a suffering Francesco on the verge of death, then shows us the unwashed and innocent revolutionary, unafraid to lecture a pope on Christ’s message. We see his mystical friendship with Chiara di Offreducci, a nobleman’s daughter who turns her back on the world to join him, and finally, the frivolous young Francesco on the deserted road where his encounter with a leper leads him to an ecstatic embrace of God. Salvation is at once an illuminating glimpse into the medieval world and an original and intimate portrait of the man whose legend has resonated through the centuries.
Captivated by the various frescoes depicting the life of St. Francis of Assisi, Martin, a writer of fiction (Italian Fever), was inspired to create this series of word pictures about the medieval saint who has been declared patron of ecologists and animals. Her book is an album of written scenes in which she invites the reader to see her own vision of how the various events of Francis's life might have played out. Although, as Martin confesses in the introduction, she is neither Catholic nor "particularly religious," her fascination with Francis is not unusual. Indeed, the saint's embrace of poverty and love for creation seem to hold special appeal for moderns. Martin's scenes from Francis's life are exquisite and imaginative, though they do not always make for pleasant reading and definitely are not for seekers of sweet stories about the saint. For instance, the author's rather graphic opening treatment of Francis's illness and death is bereft of any of the glory often found in hagiography or religious paintings. Likewise, her study of Brother Leone washing Francis's stigmata wounds is centered almost wholly on pain and discomfort. In painting such details so starkly, Martin effectively confronts the material poverty of Francis's life, but sometimes seems to miss the transcendent values that motivated him. This portrait will be most interesting to readers who are already familiar with the basic facts of Francis's life and remain open to exploring a new, gritty interpretation of them.