Art Through Time: A Global View
Dreams and Visions Art: St. Francis of Assisi
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.
Expert Perspective: Edward J. Sullivan, Professor of Fine Arts, New York University
“The Spanish seventeenth century, of course, is a period when religious fervor was very strong, and many of these artists who are working for religious institutions are often charged to—or of their own volition, of their own interest—create images of saints in ecstasy. And one of the more sober formats was developed by the painter Francisco de Zurbaràn, who did many, many saints in ecstasy, and I think that his favorite was Saint Francis, wearing his brown hooded robe. And very often Zurbaràn portrays Saint Francis standing alone on a ground completely isolated and inwardly directed, prayerful, whereas other artists they take their figures and they fly them up into the heavens and surround them by angels and create this sense of almost orgiastic ecstasy.”
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.