The painting is one of the starkest and most austere of Zurbarán's representations of saints. The face is largely obscured by the cowl and its shadows and the light is concentrated on the coarse patched habit and on the skull clasped to the saint's body.
It is probably of the early or mid-1630s, preceding a second picture of Saint Francis in the National Gallery which is signed and dated 1639. In that picture the figure, wearing the same habit, is placed in a landscape and directs attention outside the painting, holding a skull on a rocky ledge. Meditation on death was favoured, especially by the Jesuits, as a religious exercise, and saints contemplating skulls are frequent in Spanish and Italian painting in the early 17th century.
Alison Watt: I just find the painting so absorbing that I couldn’t get enough of it and there’s something about that picture that I think is genuinely mysterious and it can withstand any amount of looking. No matter how many times I look at that painting, when I’m not with the picture there are certain things that I can’t remember about it. And I think that’s really, really strange, because that makes me wonder about how we look at things and why we choose to look at certain things over other things… and are there just some things in that painting that you have to be with… that you have to be present with in order to see? Because you just can’t remember them…
Colin Wiggins: Now his face is very interesting in the picture because you could certainly see his nose and you can certainly see his open mouth, but do you think you can see his eyes?
Alison Watt: Well, I think one of the most striking things about the painting is that Zurbarán has managed to convey, very powerfully, emotion. But Saint Francis’s face is almost entirely obscured by the shadow of the cowl. And that’s one of the things that I’m slightly baffled as to how he’s done that. I mean, all we can see really is the light catching the tip of the nose and the outline of the mouth. And I think the mouth itself for me is one of the key parts of the painting. Saint Francis’s mouth is open and I think if his mouth was closed it would be a very different picture and I think we tend to, when we look at a great painting… we tend to use a kind of… without realising, we use a visual shorthand and even when we can’t see things we tend to fill in what we think we know. So whether the eyes are painted or not is really immaterial – it’s what we imagine to be true about the painting that becomes important.
Colin Wiggins: And thinking about the painting – are you able to specify any particular way that you think your obsession with it might have affected your own practice and the appearance of your own paintings?
Alison Watt: That’s something that I’ve only come to realise as the months have passed in the studio. I think it takes… in a way it sounds strange… but in a way you have to make a painting in order to know why you wanted to make it in the first place. And now when I look at the work that’s in the studio and I look at Zurbarán’s ‘Saint Francis in Meditation’, I can see certain connections. But that’s something that didn’t necessarily happen consciously. And when I look at the painting of ‘Saint Francis’ and I look at the importance, that central focus that I have with his open mouth, that shape, the ‘o’ shape, is repeated in several points in the painting. There is the shadow of the hood, and there’s the deep eye sockets in the human skull and there’s the stigmata which is barely seen on the back of the hands, and those – what I like to call points of entry, those areas of darkness – have definitely crept into my own painting and I’m beginning to recognise those shapes within my own work.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Alison Watt talking to Colin Wiggins.
From The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Seventeen, March 2008