Great Artworks: Saint Francis in Meditation by Francisco de Zurburán
A gripping image that describes a model of meditative worship
A robed monk kneels, his hands clasped, his fingers interlaced. His head is raised upwards and his mouth has fallen open. The image is utterly simply, but it’s effect is complex.
The artist was Francisco de Zurburán (1598–1664), a Spanish painter who gained popularity with monastic orders in Seville, from whom he received commissions for many of his paintings.
Zurburán’s style evolved to use a bold form of chiaroscuro — effects of contrast between light and shadow— known as tenebrism. This is the use of extreme lighting opposition to heighten the dramatic effect. The term is derived from the Latin tenebrae, meaning “darkness”. In this painting of St Francis, the figure is illuminated by a bright light from the side, contrasted against an unadorned dark background.
The kneeling monk is St Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan Order, or the Order of Friars Minor. He was an Italian preacher whose ascetic lifestyle inspired many followers. By the time of his death he was widely venerated, and from as early as the 14th century, scenes from his life had become a popular subject for works of art.
Zurburán’s gripping image describes an ideal model of meditative and humble worship.
The painting was made in Spain in around 1635, a period of Catholic resurgence initiated in response to the Protestant Reformation. In the work, St Francis wears a brown habit and hold in his hands a human skull. The inclusion of the skull was popular in Counter-Reformation art, as a reminder of man’s mortality, a memento mori emblem— “Remember you must die” — emphasising Heaven, Hell, and salvation of the soul in the afterlife.
Francis of Assisi was born in around 1181. As a youngster he lived a high-spirited life typical of a wealthy young Italian man. Yet growing up in such comfort didn’t suit Francis’s temperament and he began to lose his taste for the worldly life. One day, Francis was praying in a ruined church when he had a mystical vision of Jesus Christ: “Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.” Francis sold some cloth from his father’s store to help renovate the church. Stories like this, about Francis’s veneration of God and his devotion to the maintenance of Christianity, became strongly linked with his image in art. Above all, St Francis was an emblem of authentic worship in a religion wrought with schism.
Francis went on to devote himself to a life of poverty, obtaining a coarse woolen tunic, tied around his waist with a knotted rope. Gaining followers through his example, he established the Franciscan Order, whose monks preached sermons that had at their hearts the story of the Redemption and the appeal for conversion. The core vows of the Franciscan friars were to maintain a manner of life consistent with St Francis, of humility, simplicity, poverty, and prayer.
In representations of the praying Francis, not only was he depicted as an exemplary devotee of Christianity, his image was also used to promote institutional unity by being shown as a figure of reverence. Franciscan art tended to endorse an active and emotional engagement with Christianity in the mold of St Francis who eschewed complex theological debate for a life of poverty and repentance inspired by Christ’s example.
Symbolic of meditation and devotion, Zurburán painted St Francis in exquisite isolation. The painting shows an act of purest meditation, and in doing so produces an invitation to the viewer to partake in similar contemplative poses.
The depiction of an act of prayer like this assumes the sign of an individual’s psychological focus on an object of devotion. The gesture, as it were, points to the object of devotion, and provides a model of worship that is meditative. As a visual sign, the prayer gesture advocates a contemplative method of worship, and thereby reflects the medieval devotional method of meditating at length on stories from the Gospels.
In this way, Zurburán’s stark painting describes an ideal model of meditative and humble worship.