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2 / Dreams and Visions

St. Francis of Assisi
St. Francis of Assisi
Artist / Origin Francisco de Zurbaràn (Spanish, 1598–1644)
Region: Europe
Date ca. 1640
Material Oil on canvas
Medium: Painting
Dimensions H: 81 ½ in. (207 cm.), W: 42 in. (106 cm.)
Location Museu de Arte de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain
Credit Courtesy of Bridgeman Art Library

expert perspective

Edward J. SullivanProfessor of Fine Arts, New York University

Additional Resources

Alcolea i Gil, Santiago, and Francisco Zubaran. Zurbaran. Barcelona: Poligrafa, 2008.

Brown, Jonathan. Images and Ideas in Seventeenth-Century Spanish Painting. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Harris, Ann S. Art and Architecture of the Seventeenth Century Art. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2004.

Stoichita, Victor I. Visionary Experience in the Golden Age of Spanish Art. London: Reaktion, 1997.

St. Francis of Assisi

» Francisco de Zurbaràn (Spanish, 1598–1644)

Francisco de Zurbaràn’s image of Saint Francis of Assisi combines austere naturalism with mystical intensity.

Painted as if from life, the work is both compositionally simple and emotionally direct. The stark, solitary figure of the saint tilts back his head slightly, raising his eyes toward heaven. His body seems to emerge from the surrounding blackness, one side illuminated, the other still deep in shadow. The cast light reveals to the attentive viewer a small tear in the fabric of the saint’s robe near his heart. The rip is, in fact, a wound.

According to Catholic tradition, the stigmata—the wounds inflicted on Christ’s body during the Crucifixion and the accompanying pain—can be experienced only through intense prayer and usually by a person in a state of ecstasy. It is believed that in 1224, Francis went to the mountain of La Verna in Italy. There, after many days of fasting and deep contemplation, he was blessed with a vision of the crucified Christ carried aloft by angels. When the vision disappeared, Francis found that he had been marked with the stigmata. The laceration we see in Zurbaràn’s work corresponds to the place where Christ is said to have been pierced by the lance of a Roman soldier. Zurbaràn draws the connection between fervent prayer and mystical experience in St. Francis. However, rather than placing the saint on the mountain and showing us his vision, as countless other artists do, Zurbaràn attempts to convey the miracle as an internal event.

Zurbaràn’s paintings of saints are exemplary of seventeenth-century Spanish religious art, which shows the long-lasting influence of earlier Counter-Reformation initiatives, in particular, the 1545 Council of Trent. A body of religious authorities and theologians charged with the task of reviewing controversial doctrine, the Council issued a proclamation in 1563 that, among other things, laid out an explicit policy toward religious art. The decree instructed that pictures should avoid disorderly or confusing compositions, as well as subject matter that might be deemed lascivious, profane, or otherwise unfit for the house of God. It also outlined the benefits of devotional imagery. The image of a saint, according to the Council of Trent, offered a model of piety that might inspire the viewer to imitate the behavior of the holy figure. Solemn, straightforward, and intensely spiritual, Zurbaràn’s St. Francis is, according to these criteria, a paragon.

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