Saint's Visit to Sultan is Recast to Suit the Times

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
John Tolan

A medieval Gandhi preaching peace, love and understanding? A naïve and quixotic wanderer? A champion of the crusading ideal? Which of these, if any, accurately describes St. Francis of Assisi when in 1219, with the armies of the fifth crusade besieging Damascus, he crossed to the Egyptian camp to preach to the Sultan al-Kamil?

“Though we know very little about this event, writers from the thirteenth century to the twentieth, unencumbered by mere facts, have portrayed Francis alternatively as a new apostle preaching to the infidels, a scholastic theologian proving the truth of Christianity, and a crazed religious fanatic,” said John Tolan. “My study of the varying depictions of this lapidary encounter will attempt to throw into relief the changing fears and hopes that Muslim-Christian encounters inspired in European writers over eight centuries.”

A Research Fellow and professor of medieval history at the University of Nantes, Tolan is the author of Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination (Columbia UP, 2005), Petrus Alfonsi and his Medieval Readers (UP of Florida, 1993), and the forthcoming Points of Contact: Fourteen Centuries of European-Arab Relations.

His current project examines how different European authors and artists have presented the encounter between Francis, archetype of Western sanctity, and Al-Kamil, powerful Sultan and nephew of Saladin, making it fit into their preconceptions of proper relations between Christian Europe and the Muslim East. The encounter, said Tolan, is not mentioned in any Arabic sources. As far as is known, St. Francis and friar Illuminatus crossed over to the Egyptian camp to preach and after a number of days returned, having apparently spoken to the Sultan.

Jacques de Vitry, bishop of Acre, who was with the crusading army when Francis arrived, wrote in 1220 that Francis “came into our army and, burning with zeal, did not fear to cross over to the enemy army and preach to the sultan for several days; then, having accomplished little, he returned.” Said Tolan, “For Jacques, as for other 13th-century crusade chroniclers, Francis’s attempt to convert the enemy, however admirable, was doomed to failure. This underlines, for many of them, the necessity of crusade.”

In contrast, some other medieval authors depict Francis skillfully debating with the Sultan’s men, offering rational proof of the superiority of Christianity. “For these authors, Christian missionaries, through exemplary piety and proper training, can foil objections to Christianity and hope to bring Muslims and other infidels into the fold.”

Certain Franciscan hagiographers of the 13th century used the incident as a testimony to their founder’s sanctity. They described the Sultan as proposing a debate between Francis and the Saracen “priests,” which Francis refused by arguing that faith is beyond reason. Francis then asked the Sultan to order the lighting of a fire, saying he would enter it with the priests to see which religion was superior. At this, such accounts relate, the Saracen priests fled in fear. Francis proposed to enter the fire alone but the Sultan declined, fearing it might provoke a scandal.

Even though this version described the Sultan as rejecting Francis’s offer, said Tolan, some artists in later centuries show St. Francis preparing to step into the fire. They were following the lead of Giotto, who in the early 14th century painted two church frescoes depicting the scene this way. “Giotto transformed the confrontation into a Christian victory over Islam, and Giotto’s image of the trial by fire was reproduced by many fifteenth-century artists.”

In the 16th and 17th centuries, as the Ottomans pressed into Europe, few dared to hope for the peaceful conversion of Muslims, and few artists depicted Francis’s mission to the Sultan. “The Turkish threat to Europe faded after the failed siege of Vienna in 1683, and the authors of the Enlightenment could look differently on Francis’s mission.”

When Voltaire presented Francis as a wild-eyed fanatic and the bemused Sultan as a just and cultured monarch, Catholic authors defended their hero, including Joseph Roman-Joly, whose 1786 epic poem describes Francis converting the Sultan in secret despite epic battles in which he and the Franciscans are beset by demons and defended by angels.

The encounter also has intrigued 20th-century scholars, who affirm variously that: Francis had no desire for martyrdom, nor did he want to convert the Sultan but rather sought “ecumenical reconciliation”; he was a pacifist opposed to crusading; he was on a “mission of peace.” Said Tolan, “In the twentieth century as in the thirteenth, the varying portrayals of this touchstone encounter shed more light on the hopes, fears and ideas of their authors than on what really happened in Damietta in September, 1219.”