St. Francis of Assisi (Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone, c. 1181-1226) was a Catholic deacon and founder of the Franciscans, officially known as the Order of Friars Minor. He is known as the patron saint of animals and the environment; it is customary for Catholic churches to hold a blessing of animals on his feast day of October 4.
Legends and stories about his supposed kindness to animals, and their love for him, sprang up after his death and are known as the “Little Flowers” of St. Francis. One tells of Francis preaching to a flock of birds in the trees, not one of which flew away. Statues of St. Francis often depict birds perched on his shoulders.
The painting at left is by the Spanish painter Francisco de Zurburàn (1598-1664), dated 1658 and currently on display at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, Germany.
The narrator of Unbearable Lightness makes an analogy between the birds coming down to St. Francis and the “fortuities” or happy coincidences that seem to lead to, or support, a passionate love affair.