Saint Francis is shown meditating in a landscape, holding a skull in his hand. His hood is pulled back and the light catches one side of his face, marking out his strong nose and pronounced cheekbone, while the other side remains in deep shadow. He wears the fraying and patched robe of the Franciscans, the religious order he founded in the thirteenth century; all members took a vow of poverty.
The skull symbolises death and refers to the suffering of the crucified Christ – the focus of the saint’s meditation. But this is not a scene of quiet contemplation: Francis’s upward gaze, slightly open mouth and upturned palm suggest he is talking with God. His hands are marked with the stigmata, the wounds of Christ’s crucifixion. In the landscape background you can just make out a simple hut, suggesting that the saint is not in complete isolation.
In this moving painting, Saint Francis is shown meditating in a landscape. His cowl (or hood) is pulled back and light catches the left side of his face, marking out his strong nose and pronounced cheekbone, while leaving the other side in deep shadow. Francis looks intently towards heaven and his hands are marked with the stigmata, the wounds of Christ’s crucifixion.The kneeling saint leans against a rock, on which rests a book, and cradles a skull in his right hand.
Saint Francis founded the Franciscan Order in the thirteenth century. The fraying and patched habit he wears – the texture of which Zurbarán paints so effectively – is a visual reminder of the saint’s vow of poverty. This pledge to live without material possessions is something that led to his nickname il Poverello (‘the little pauper’). The landscape behind the saint represents the world he has renounced, but the presence of a simple hut suggests that he is not in complete isolation.
Saint Francis in meditation was a popular subject in seventeenth-century Spain, and the theme was treated often by Zurbarán and his assistants. This work is signed and dated – we see Zurbarán’s name and the year 1639 on the cartellino in the lower right corner. It probably dates from around the same time as his other version of the subject in our collection, which shows the saint kneeling in a confined space, holding a skull to his chest.
In both pictures, the skull symbolises mortality and refers to the suffering of the crucified Christ – the focus of the saint’s meditation. But Saint Francis’s spiritual experience is expressed very differently in each painting: here, his upward gaze, slightly open mouth and upturned palm suggest he is actively in conversation with God, while in the other picture Zurbarán emphasises the saint’s internal spirituality and contemplation.
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