Because of his simplicity, piety, and devotion to all living creatures, St. Francis (1181-1226) has remained among the most revered and popular saints. Born to wealthy parents in Assisi, he first lived a life of spendthrift luxury. However, Francis later gave up all worldly goods and embraced existence of utter poverty. Throughout his adult life, the saint experienced mystical trances and visions of Christ.
Atop the cross is a leafy tree and a nest of pelicans. Fifteenth century viewers would have recognized the tree as a reference to the cross, which is often described as a tree, symbolizing Christ's role as the source of eternal life. The pelican, shown nourishing it's young with its own blood, symbolizes Christ, who sacrifices himself for the salvation of mankind.
This painting was the center pinnacle on the back of a double-sided altarpiece made for the church of San Francesco in Borgo Sansepolcro (near Arezzo). Below this panel was a scene of St. Francis in Glory (Villa I Tatti, Florence).