Ens Infinitum, à l'école de Saint François d'Assise

Salle d'exposition de la BNU (2e étage)
6, place de la République

Entrée libre

Horaires d'ouverture :
Lundi : 14h-18h
Mardi - samedi : 12h-18h
Fermé les dimanches et jours fériés

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Commissaires de l'exposition :
Claude Coulot, professeur à l'Université de Strasbourg
Franck Storne, responsable des sciences religieuses à la BNU

Télécharger le dossier de presse

Ens Infinitum, à l'école de Saint François d'Assise

19/3/2009 - 30/4/2009

Presentation of the exhibition

The exhibition “Ens Infinitum: A l'école de saint François d'Assise” is part of a series of events to promote understanding, study and circulation of Franciscan thinking.  2008 saw the publication of a new translation of Franciscan sources, with a copious commentary, and a number of reference works on the history of the Franciscan movement intended to allow a better understanding of the Order of Friars Minor.  In March 2009 there will be an international colloquy at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Strasbourg devoted to the posterity of Duns Scotus, who is considered one of the greatest Franciscan theologians.  The colloquy is the final stage of a cycle that started in New York and has passed through Oxford, Bonn and Cologne.  2009 also marks the centenary of the reinstallation of Franciscans in Alsace.  Finally, 2009 will also – and above all – be marked by the celebration of the 800th anniversary of Pope Innocent III’s approval of the way of life of the Friars Minor, thereby consecrating the foundation of the Order.
The BNU is the leading university in France for religious sciences; it recently received the deposit of more than 20 000 works from convents in the Franciscan province of the “Three Companions”, as well as the donation of the archives of the theologian Paul Sabatier.  This gives the BNU incomparable status in the field of Franciscan studies; the BNU’s exhibition entitled “Ens Infinitum: À l’école de saint François d’Assise” presents 150 rare items, including extremely precious illuminated manuscripts, some of which have never been displayed before, with three pictures by Maurice Denis, presented to the public for the first time ever.

Click here for more information on the BNU’s Franciscan collection
Click here for some links on Franciscan studies

Visiting the exhibition

The Franciscan sources

The sources at the origin of the Franciscan tradition can be divided into two major groups in order to discover various aspects of the person of Francis of Assisi – firstly the writings, and secondly the lives or legends.
The writing of Francis of Assisi allows us to make out the personality, thinking and spirituality of the founder of the Order of Friars Minor.  His “Testament”, a determining document, was considered to be a sort of Rule and was adopted by a number of the faithful who aspired to greater radicalism in their lives and as a result gave birth to a number of movements within the Franciscan Order.
The lives or legends trace the life and work of Francis of Assisi in their own way.  These writings offer a great variety of portraits of the saint, according to the way in which their writers viewed him.

Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-2 – 1226)

The son of a rich merchant draper, he had the ambition in his youth to become a knight, or perhaps even a prince.  His plans were halted abruptly when he was made prisoner during the war between his native Assisi and Perugia and fell ill on returning from captivity.  It was at that point that he felt a burning need for prayer and solitude.  He went to live with lepers, the mere sight of whom he had previously found unbearable.  One day, while praying in St Damian’s chapel, he heard the voice of Christ telling him to repair the chapel, which was falling into ruin.  In 1206 he repaired several sanctuaries with his own hands, and at mass one day in 1208, as he heard the Gospel story of sending out the disciples with instructions to accept neither gold nor silver, his vocation was revealed to him.  Following in Christ’s footsteps, he chose poverty as the path of peace and fraternity.  Several hundred people joined him in his evangelising, and he himself carried his message as far as Egypt and Palestine.  He wrote the first Rule in 1221, but it was deemed unworkable; he then wrote a second in 1223.  He died in 1226, leaving behind him his Testament, one of the most important texts in the Franciscan movement.  He was canonised by the Pope in 1228.


The development of Franciscan thinking

From the beginnings of the Franciscan movement in the thirteenth century, the first Franciscans were great philosophers, theologians and knowledgeable men who made a substantial contribution to the development of this thinking, including Bonaventura di Bagnorea, Pierre de Jean Olivi, Roger Bacon, Antony of Padua, and William of Ockham.  Many dissenting movements appeared within the Order, particularly concerning poverty, education and authoritative texts, and various communities came into being – the Poor Clares, the Third Order, etc.
The exhibition will pay particular attention to the person of Duns Scotus and those who came after him; their work marked Franciscan thinking and is still of interest to researchers today.

John Duns Scotus (1265-6 - 1308)

John Duns Scotus was born in Duns, in Scotland.  He was one of the greatest theologians of his time, although little is known about his life, apart from the fact that he died in Cologne in 1308.  He had been a lecturer there, after having taught at Oxford (in about 1300) and Paris (from 1302 to 1307).  He advocated a traditional form of Franciscanism; he was a keen defender of the characteristic doctrinal traits of the Order (Christocentrism, the primacy of will over the intellect, defence of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception), and an adversary of Thomas Aquinas.  His “Commentaire des Sentences”, considered to be his masterpiece, had considerable influence on all the thinkers who followed him.  He was beatified in 1993 by Pope John Paul II.

Preaching and evangelisation

Francis of Assisi sent his friars out to preach repentance, first in Italy and then throughout Europe, and even as far as Egypt and Palestine, where he himself travelled.  It was there in 1219, during the Fifth Crusade, that he met the Sultan Al-Kamel, who allowed him to preach to his subjects, although he did not manage to convert them.  The exhibition will cover this aspect of the Franciscan tradition by examining the character of Anthony of Padua, the famous preacher whose sermons were published, and tracing the establishment of the Franciscans in Alsace from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries.


Franciscans in Alsace

Franciscans have probably been present in Alsace since 1222 with the foundation of a convent in Haguenau when two nobles and a patrician of the town were converted by a group of German preachers from Augsburg.  In 1233 the Cordeliers were sufficiently well established for an Alsatian custodianship to be created, and in 1239 the Upper Germany chapter held its session in Strasbourg, which suggests an earlier establishment.  The Franciscans took advantage of the favourable geographical, economic and religious contexts and succeeded in establishing themselves in Colmar (1246), Rouffach (1250), Wissembourg (1272), Thann (1279), Sélestat (1280), Kaysersberg and Mulhouse (1281).  Their expansion quickly brought them up against other religious orders attempting to become established in the area, and attracted the mistrust of the municipalities and the secular clergy.  Although the Franciscans encountered a degree of acceptance in the region, their presence was not entirely without disturbance and they found it difficult to withstand the Reformation.  Indeed by 1566 the convent in Alspach was the only one still occupied, and the Franciscan movement only continued to exist in the form of a handful of nuns in the valley of the Vosges.  The movement only regained strength with the arrival of Capuchins in Ensisheim in 1603, and elsewhere in the region during the first half of the seventeenth century.

Epilogue: the Sabatier archives

Research on the medieval origins of the Franciscan movement received a boost at the end of the nineteenth century and in the early twentieth century with the work of Paul Sabatier, professor at the Faculty of Protestant Theology in Strasbourg, part of whose archives have been or are to be deposited with the BNU.


Paul Sabatier (1858-1928)

He was born the son of a pastor in a village in the Ardèche département, and at a very early age became interested in the denominational antagonism that continued to exist in his village.  After his father’s death in 1877, he decided to join the Protestant Theology Faculty in Paris, where he was taught by Auguste Sabatier; he also attended lectures by Ernest Renan at the Collège de France.  This teaching had a great influence on him and predisposed him to researching the Franciscan movement in the thirteenth century and the evolution of the Roman Catholic church in the twentieth century.  He was appointed vicar to the French parish of St Nicolas in Strasbourg, where he married but was expelled by the German authorities, which forced him to return to the Ardèche département.  Poor health prevented him from continuing his ministry, and he devoted himself to his research.  He published his Life of Saint François in 1893, and it had considerable impact both in France and elsewhere, particularly in Italy – he was made an honorary citizen of Assisi.  This was followed by the religious orientation of present-day (i.e. pre-First World War) France, which made it possible to understand and situate the place of the Church in a society committed to increased secularisation.  He returned to Strasbourg in 1918, and taught ecclesiastical history.

Maurice Denis and St Francis of Assisi

The exhibition will include an exceptional group of three paintings by Maurice Denis (1870-1943) never before shown to the public.  In 1910, the painter travelled in Italy to prepare the illustrations for an edition of St Francis’ “Fioretti” that was published in 1913, with 79 colour compositions.  Denis was imbued with Christianity and sensitive to the saint’s teaching; he advocated art as part of nature in a 1927 lecture on “the spirit of Franciscanism in art”.  He constantly defined the foundations of religious art, particularly in “Les Charmes et leçons de l'Italie” (1933), in which he based his work on the example of St Francis of Assisi: “I have said that the true naivety that gives the artist the greatest receptiveness, simplicity and love with regard to nature has long been and still is the instrument of choice of Christian art.  And I would add this: that art in general, and not only Christian art, benefits from man’s religious attitude, and also from the brotherly love he should have for mankind and for nature as the daughter of God.  That is the last lesson I would have asked of St Francis.”
The paintings on display are “Le Christ et Frère Jean dans la forêt de l'Alverne”, “La Montée à l'Alverne, où saint François fut assailli par les demons”, and “Saint François bénissant Assise”.


Cultural events

Wednesday, 25 March, at 6 p.m.
Paul Sabatier, 1858-1928
by Maurice Causse

Saturday, 28 March, at 6 p.m.
Olivier Messiaen’s “Saint François d'Assise”
by Maître Oster

Wednesday, 1 April, at 6 p.m.
Franciscan theologians as eternal students
Studies and students in the Franciscan Province of Parisian France in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries
by Pierre Moracchini, Franciscan Capuchin Library, Paris

Wednesday, 29 April, at 6 p.m.
The influence of St Francis of Assisi on the Franciscan masters of the Middle Ages
by Thaddée Matura

Wednesday, 15 April, at 6 p.m.
“Murmures du Jardin des Cordeliers, Fioretti alsaciennes des disciples de saint François d'Assise”
Concert with readings and hurdy-gurdy accompaniment to discover the Franciscan spiritual literature that blossomed in the Rhine valley and in Flanders.
Part of the “Mystic Rhine” cycle organised by the Diocese of Strasbourg and the “Emmanuel Mounier” Centre.

Thursday, 30 April, at 8.30 p.m. in the Roman Catholic church of St Pierre le Jeune
Gregorian chant


The catalogue of the exhibition, published by Les Presses Universitaires de Strasbourg, does more than just reproduce the documents on display and their notices.  It also develops the topics broached by the exhibition: presentation of St Francis of Assisi, his religious experience, and the legends he inspired; analysis of the foundation of the Order of Friars Minor; development of Franciscan thinking and presentation of a number of Franciscan thinkers, including Bonaventura, Pierre de Jean Olivi, Roger Bacon, and Duns Scotus; portrait of one of the greatest Franciscan preachers, Antony of Padua; article on the Franciscan presence and architecture in Alsace; study of the heritage of Paul Sabatier.

This exhibition makes it possible to draw up a complete panorama of Franciscan thinking, from its origins to our own time, from its first thinkers to our contemporaries, from the town of Assisi to Alsace, and to grasp its originality, its grandeur, its strength, and its topicality.

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