Image courtesy of http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk.
The portrait is one that is highly realistic and makes great use of the chiaroscuro technique, which had been developed in the preceding Renaissance period, to add drama by concentrating the viewer’s eye on the spiritual figure. The single light source shining from the left highlights the rough worn clothing which is rendered in varying tones of ochre – there is a brightness and intensity to the colour used throughout but with a delicacy of touch to create the textures of the hessian cloth. The light source also partially highlights Saint Francis’s face and the skull in his hands, one of which bears the mark the of the stigmata which is just visible, but his eyes are shaded by the cappuccino, (pointed hood), as he looks heavenwards in solemn contemplation.
The artist was known to have close links to religious orders in Seville and although Saint Francis founded his own order of monks, Order of Friars Minor, he is painted wearing the robes of the Capuchin monks so this indicates this was possibly a Capuchin commission perhaps for a private chapel or similar particularly bearing in mind the intent religious devotion depicted. Originally Saint Francis was painted simply as a charitable man often with animals surrounding him as he believed all creatures were brothers and sisters under God and he also cared for the poor and the sick but over time the style changed to depicting him as a man of intense religious devotion who bore the aforesaid stigmata marks after receiving a vision. The skull in the portrait by de Zurbaran was used as a visual reminder of the vanity of earthly life and for me it is also signifies a remembrance of our mortality. I also note the neat knots of the rope which indicate self-flagellation which is seen as a bodily penance to show remorse for having sinned.
The Spanish people at the time considered themselves to be the leading light or moral compass at the centre of the Catholic world in Europe and thereby it was their responsibility and obligation to spread the Catholic faith to South America and lands discovered by the Spanish conquistadores – hence the commission of works of art by the monasteries of South America. The Council of Trent encouraged artists to portray monks in simple styles in order to encourage meditation or least a contemplative attitude by the populace – the Council of Trent was at the heart of the Counter Reformation.
I now ask myself the question of how this painting compares with other portrayals and I note that it is simpler and more stark than the one by Anthony van Dyke in 1632 or by Cigoli painted in 1600 with both the latter having detailed scenery surrounding the figure – the stark spiritual message of de Zurbaran’s work is made all the more clear due to its dramatic but simple composition. Francisco de Zurbaran was considered a painter of severe monks until eventually in the 1920’s he received recognition in art history of being one of the greatest painters of the Spanish school.
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Glover, M. 17 November 2012. Great Works: Saint Francis in Mediation (1635-9) by Francisco de Zurbaran [online]. [Date Accessed: November 2016]. Available from: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/great-works/great-works-saint-francis-in-meditation-1635-9-by-francisco-de-zurbur-n-8320457.html
HistoriaVivens. (date unknown). St Francis in art [online]. [Date Accessed: November 2016]. Available from: http://www.historiavivens.eu/2/st_francis_in_art_1117879.html
Jones, J. 21 July 2001. Saint Francis in Meditation, Zurbaran (1635-9) [online]. [Date Accessed: November 2016]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2001/jul/21/art
National Gallery. 2016. Saint Francis in Meditation [online]. [Date Accessed: November 2016]. Available from: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/francisco-de-zurbaran-saint-francis-in-meditation-1