This is one of Zurbarán’s most austere and intensely spiritual works. Saint Francis is shown kneeling in fervent prayer, his clasped hands cradling a skull. Shadow obscures his face, giving us only a glimpse of his features. He wears the robe of the Franciscans, the religious order he founded in the thirteenth century; its patched and tattered appearance draws to mind the vow of poverty taken by all the order’s members.
Zurbarán shows the saint in a moment of profound contemplation, his head tilted upwards and mouth slightly open. The skull is a symbol of death and refers to Christ’s crucifixion. Meditation on death was particularly favoured by the Jesuits, and saints contemplating skulls are frequently found in seventeenth-century Italian and Spanish painting.
This is one of Zurbarán’s most austere and intensely spiritual works. He shows Saint Francis in a moment of profound contemplation, his head tilted upwards, mouth slightly open, and his hands clasped in fervent prayer.
Deep shadow obscures the saint’s face, giving us only a glimpse of his features – the tip of his nose, his upturned eyes and parted lips. The stark lighting emphasises the coarse texture of his roughly patched robe, his tattered clothing bringing to mind the saint’s vow of poverty. He cradles a skull against his body. The skull is a symbol of death and refers to Christ’s crucifixion – the subject of the saint’s meditation. His hands are marked with the stigmata, the wounds of Christ’s crucifixion, which Francis is believed to have received in 1224 during a retreat on Mount Alverna in the Apennines.
Saint Francis founded the Franciscan Order in the thirteenth century. Here, he wears a brown robe (or habit) and a rope girdle with three knots, each representing a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience; this identifies him as a member of the branch known as the Franciscan Capuchins.
Zurbarán’s limited colour palette and use of a simple background setting ensure that nothing distracts us from Saint Francis’s meditation. Focusing our attention on a single figure was in keeping with the ideas of the Counter-Reformation in his Spiritual Exercises, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, theologian and founder of the Jesuit Order, taught that viewers should be encouraged to identify with the saints portrayed in religious imagery and to lead their lives in imitation of them. Meditation on death was particularly favoured by the Jesuits, as a spiritual exercise, and saints contemplating skulls are frequently found in seventeenth-century Italian and Spanish painting. Indeed over 40 paintings of this subject survive by Zurbarán and his assistants alone.
When the National Gallery purchased this work from King Louis-Philippe’s celebrated Galerie Espagnole in 1853, the acquisition was heavily criticised. In a letter to The Times, William Coningham MP described the painting as a ‘small, black, repulsive picture’. Today it is considered one of Zurbarán’s greatest works. Striking for its modernity and powerful spirituality, this painting effectively conveys the intense emotion experienced through prayer.
This work was probably made around the same time as our other painting of Saint Francis in meditation, which Zurbarán signed and dated 1639. There, the saint wears the same habit and contemplates a skull, but his gesture suggests a more outward conversation with God as he kneels in a landscape.
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