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Saint Francis

Saint Francis

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664). Musée des Beaux-Arts – Lyon. 1650-1660.

Saint Francis of Assisi

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664). Museo Nacional d’Arte – Barcelona. 1650-1660.

Saint Francis in Meditation

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664). The National Gallery – London. 1635-1640.

Saint Francis Standing with a Skull

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664). The Saint Louis Art Museum – Saint Louis. 1634.

Saint Francis Kneeling with a Skull

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664). Stadtmuseum Suermondt-Ludwig – Aachen - Germany. 1635-1640.

Saint Francis in Ecstasy

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664). Bayerische Staatssammlungen – Munich - Germany. 1660.

Saint Francis

Cimabue (ca. 1240-1302). Basilica of Assisi – Assisi.

Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata

Giotto di Bondone (ca. 1267-1337). Musée du Louvre – Paris. 1295-1300.

Exhibition of the Corpse of Saint Bonaventure

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664). Musée du Louvre – Paris. 1629.

The Stigmatisation of Saint Francis

Giovanni Baptista Tiepolo (1696-1770). The Courtauld Institute Galleries – London. 1767.

Saint Dominic and Saint Francis saving the World from God’s Wrath

Pieter-Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Musée des Beaux-Arts – Lyon. 1618-1620.

A monk is standing. He wears simple beggar monk clothes: a long coarse brown cloak and a cape. The cape hides his features, which are anyhow not important to God. The monk lifts his head and finds ecstasy. He has an extraordinary vision of the beauty and love of God. This vision is so sudden and wonderful that the monk’s mouth opens in surprise. The monk is a simple man, probably not very intelligent, a country boy who has come to live in a cloister. It is as if he has grown out of the earth. He is clad in the colour of earth. The monk is standing alone in a dark crypt. The vision is his alone. Light falls just so that we have a small, short glimpse of the sudden mysticism of the moment.

This is the Saint Francis in the mystical view of a Spanish painter. The Saint is shown in a crypt, his tomb. According to legend, Francis had thus been seen standing in his tomb in Assisi by the pious visitors Popes Nicolas V and Sixtus IV F5 . Almost the same picture of Zurbarán is exhibited in the museums of Lyon and of Barcelona.

Saint Francis of Assisi

Saint Francis was born of a wealthy cloth merchant, Pietro Bernardone, in the town of Assisi. His mother was French; he spoke French well, so that his name Giovanni was changed into Francesco or the Frenchman. He was a wealthy young man, who brawled with his friends in the streets of Assisi, went to the war between Assisi and Perugia in 1201, was imprisoned for a year and so was very much in esteem in his home town.

Yet, he was not as other young men of his times. He disliked war, once turned his back in a battle and faced cowardice. He fell ill after his imprisonment. It entirely changed the way he thought about life. He turned to the poor. In 1205, when he was 23 years old, he heard voices in the church of San Damiano of Assisi, which seemed to implore him to repair this church that was crumbling. Francis sold his possessions to start the task, but in the act also gave away some of his father’s bales of cloth. He fell into a conflict with his father over this. Francis renounced his inheritance and gave everything back, even his clothes, so that he stood naked in front of his community. The Bishop of Assisi however liked Francis, recognised a spark of divine madness, hid his nakedness, gave him a cloak and further supported him.

Francis went into extreme poverty, nursed lepers, and continued to rebuild San Damiano with money begged. At first he lived alone, but then disciples assembled around him, vowing to the same poverty as Francis. They adhered strictly to Catholicism, to obedience and reverence for the Pope. Soon they became preachers of poverty and simple life. They formed a monastery at the Portiuncula of Assisi where they lived in prayer and labour. They continued to beg to live. In 1210 Francis and his disciples wrote their Rules in 25 chapters and went to Rome to receive acceptance of these rules of strict poverty from Pope Innocentius III. They refused all property for themselves as individuals and also for their Order. The Pope accepted orally the founding of a new order of monks, the Franciscans.

While his order grew, Francis himself was driven by a desire to convert the heathens to Christianism. He left Italy a first time in 1212, but his ship was thrown to the Dalmatian coast. He tried again in 1214 and went over Spain to Morocco, but became ill and had to return once more to Italy. Finally, in 1219, he set off for Acra in the Holy Land where the fifth crusade had begun two years before under Leopold of Austria and Jean de Brienne, King of Jerusalem. The Crusaders attacked Damietta, the sea capital of the eastern Nile in Egypt. Francis was soon disillusioned by the Crusaders that lived in these countries, as well as by the Papal legate Pelagius. He found the austere Sultan Malik Al Kamil more to his taste. He talked to the Sultan but could not convert him. He returned to Assisi and to his little church, a disappointed man.

In the meantime, the monastery he had founded had become a real Order of several thousand people. Cardinal Ugolino, the later Pope Gregory IX, wanted to use the fervour of Francis and his Order of Franciscans for a new religious élan, especially since they pledged to complete orthodoxy in Catholicism. But Francis of Assisi was not the organiser such a new Order needed. Francis realised this and resigned as Minister-General in 1220. He retired to Mount La Verna in Tuscany. Yet, he continued to devise simple Rules for his Franciscan Order: renunciation, return to the conditions of the first followers of Jesus, devotion to the humble child of the Nativity. Pope Honorius III accepted the order now formally in 1223.

In 1224 Francis wrote the famous ‘Canticle of the Sun’. He wrote this poem while visiting Sister Clare of Assisi who had followed him. She had become a nun, lived close to the Franciscans in the Portiuncula of Assisi and had founded the Poor Clares sister monastery. Saint Francis also wrote the ‘Fioretti’, little flower poems and texts. That same year 1224, according to legends, he received while in ecstasy on mount La Verna the impression on his own body of the Stigmata, the wounds of the Crucifixion of Christ. The panel of Giotto of around 1300 shows this event. A winged seraph God sends the Stigmata to Francis who is already wearing the brown coarse cloak of the Franciscans friars.

After that experience Francis fell ill, became blind and died in 1226 at the Portiuncula chapel. He was buried in the church of San Giorgio of Assisi and canonised in 1228 by Pope Gregory IX, the Cardinal Ugolino that had always supported him.

The Franciscan Order spread over Europe. They sent missionaries to the Greek Orthodox countries and to the Mohameddan Africa and Asia. The Ordo Fratrum Minorum became a huge success, to probably the largest Catholic order. In 1300 already the order had 30.000 to 40.000 followers. In later centuries, internal discussions over just how much the rules of Saint Francis had to be followed led to a separation in 1517 of first two, then three orders. The Observationists held to the original rules of Francis, the Monasterials followed softer rules. Out of the Observationists came in 1525 the Capucines. The complete order grew to over 100.000 monks, then fell back again heavily after the French revolution. The Franciscans wear a long brown gown with a white long-hanging rope and a cape. They are either barefoot or wear simple sandals.

Two years after Francis’ death started the building of the Saint Francis Basilica of Assisi. This was constructed to a large cathedral with frescoes of Giotto di Bondone, Cimabue and Pietro Cavallini. We have a picture there of Francis made by Cimabue. Cimabue was born in 1240, so the fresco of Francis dates from more than forty years after Francis’ death, but Cimabue may have held other pictures of him. It shows a small, lined and gentle face. Truly the face of a man who was the ‘Husband of Lady Poverty’.

Saint Francis epitomised aspects of Catholic faith that appealed particularly to the poor masses: the emphasis on individual and common poverty, gentleness, compassion, simple love of nature, love for all creatures through love of God. He did so in a heroic way, far greater and more extreme than any other church authority. The simple message that Good always wins from Evil drew forward to heroism the simple qualities of most poor country and urban people. Francis instated a new Order that became very popular by these qualities so that it attracted large numbers of followers. He was one of those elements that brought more humanity, joy and love to Christianity, not unlike the premises and goals of the cult of the Holy Virgin. The Christian Church was in dire need of a renovation based on gentleness, tolerance, mutual understanding and poverty at the moment. The Franciscan Order influenced European civilisation at least somewhat in the better sense. It was one of the major reactions in the Catholic Church that wanted to join again the original message of love and simplicity of Jesus.

Francis was not just a happy dreamer who talked to the birds and was followed in church by a lamb, but also a man who knew the reality of organisation and the necessity for rules to a community. He vowed always to strict orthodoxy to Roman Catholicism. He was one of the symbols of Christian Faith that shaped civilisation, as there were other symbols. Saint James the Great led to the reconquista of Spain and then Europe from Mohammedanism, Saint Sebastian taught heroism of suffering for the true faith and promised rebirth. Saint Jerome taught scholarship, teaching and learning of the Bible. There are two kinds of men: hunters and farmers. The Catholic Church had in Saint James the hunter and warrior, the one who could appear in the heat of battle with flying colours to charge forward. The Church needed a farmer of souls. Saint Francis was just that. And of course, Francis brought a change in monastic life as Dominic, Bernard, Benedict and still later Ignatius had done or would do.

The Rubens painting of Saint Dominic and Saint Francis shows these founders of beggar monk orders as men that were saving the world from the wrath of God. God holds his three lightning bolts, ready to destroy the world. The Holy Virgin intercedes, but only Dominic and Francis by vowing to chastity, poverty and obedience, can avert God’s destruction. Around the saints, Rubens painted the sins that Dominic and Francis abjured: luxury, pride, and avarice. Dominic and Francis wear the monk’s habits of their order, for Francis that is the brown cloth tied in the middle by a rope. Remark the flamboyancy of this Baroque painting, the bright colours and the dynamism of the scene; all characters are engaged in action.

Saint Francis is a frequent subject of paintings throughout history. Cimabue, Giotto and Sassetta were painters who lived close to Francis’ age, the thirteenth century. But also later Italians in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries continued taking him as a subject, such as Giovanni da Milano. Still later the tradition more or less stopped, but Italian painters regularly took up the subject again. For instance: Giovanni Battista Tiepolo painted the stigmatisation of Francis.

Francisco de Zurbarán

Francisco de Zurbarán was born in 1598 in Fuente de Cantos near Badajoz in Spain. He was raised in Sevilla, was a pupil of the painter Pacheco and met there Diego de Velásquez with whom he became friends. He at first remained at the town of Llerena, but returned to Sevilla after 1629 where he obtained many commissions. In 1634 Velásquez invited him to come to Madrid, where he worked at the decoration of the new Buen Retiro royal palace. King Philips IV appointed him to court painter. But he returned to Sevilla. After 1645 his fame declined. He painted large series of saints, and of the Holy Virgin, many of which were exported to the Americas. He was back in Madrid in 1658, gave testimony for Velásquez when his friend entered the Order of Santiago. He lived as a very poor in Madrid until his death in 1664.

Francisco de Zurbarán was named after Saint Francis. He may have been particularly inspired by his patron saint, wanting in his religious ardour special favours for his afterlife. Zurbarán also lived at the end of his life in dire poverty, never had an easy life and he was naturally attracted to the same ideals as Francis and his way to render poverty heroic. Zurbarán also painted for the Franciscan Saint Bonaventure College of Sevilla. He painted an ‘Exhibition of the Corpse of Saint Bonaventure’, part of a series of Bonaventure lives, now in the Louvre Museum, for that College. Saint Bonaventure was elected Minister-General of the Franciscan Friars in 1257, right after Francis. He staunchly defended the original rules of Francis, but insisted on the need for learning so that he became one of the more moderate Franciscans. So, Zurbarán knew very well the story of the life of Francis.

And Catholic Faith had become obsessive in Spain through the works of the Orders, but also through the support of the Kings of Spain. Saint James the Great and Christianity gave the necessary fanatic energy to Spain, both nobles and common folk, to reconquer the territory occupied by the Moors. Thereafter, the Spanish remained zealous. The conquest of the Americas led to the naming of many new cities by the name of saints, such as Santiago de Chili for Saint James and San Francisco for Saint Francis. The Inquisition in which the Dominican Order was very present played of course a prominent role in keeping Catholic Faith pure and obsessional. Spanish life and culture was impregnated by religion and no other Spanish painter but Zurbarán pictured so many monks and Saints. Zurbarán not only painted for the Franciscan College, he also made many paintings for the Dominican Cloister of San Pablo el Real and for the Hospital de la Sangre of Sevilla. So, many religious institutions commissioned his works, tens of paintings of saints and Holy Lives. His paintings impersonate to perfection the religious ardour of the Counter Reformation.

Zurbarán was a true Spaniard, the prisoner also in his art of Spanish society. Yet, the seventeenth century was the golden century of Spanish art. After the great Emperor Charles V had abdicated, Spain and the German Empire went into different hands. Ferdinand of Austria, brother of Charles V, received the German Empire. Philip II, son of Charles V, became King of Spain. Philip died in 1598, and was followed by three weak Kings who ruled through their First Ministers. Under the reign of Philip III ruled the Duke of Lerma. This Duke together with his brother the Great Inquisitioner Cardinal Don Bernardo de Sandoval, chased more than half a million descendants of the Moors out of the country, although they had converted to Christendom. These were the industrialists and merchants of old time. They were banished in the name of Christian faith, but it left Spain bloodless and completely in grip of religious fanaticism. Spain slowly declined. Philip III died in 1621. His son Philip IV gave power to another Minister, the Duke of Olivarez. In 1641 both Portugal and Catalonia were lost, Catalonia to the French King. In that same year at the Peace of Munster, the Northern Netherlands definitely were recognised as an independent country. Later in the 1640s started unrest and rebellions in Sicily and Naples, that could only be finished by the able General Don Juan of Austria. This was the period of Richelieu, Mazarin, and Louis XIV. Around 1650 new French-Spanish wars ensued, with first victories for Spain’s Don Juan, but subsequently a disastrous battle at Dunkirk. The wars ended in the Peace of the Pyrenees. Although Catalonia came back to Spain so that the border between Spain and France was once and for all established by the mountain chain, large territories that Spain had above the Pyrenees and in Northern France were lost.

This seventeenth century was the golden century of Spanish art, both in paintings and literature, but it was at the same time a period of slow decline. All the riches acquired by the empire of the sixteenth century disappeared. Yet, no other century of Spain has delivered so many masters in paintings. But even the greatest masters like Diego Velazquez, Alonso Cano, Francesco Ribalta, Juan Valdez Leal, so many others and Zurbarán, were limited to commissions from monks and the royal nobility. There was no rich middle class of merchants and industrialists anymore in Spain; most of them had been driven out of the country by the religious laws against the Moor and Jewish descendants. The many wars diminished the wealth of the country; money was constantly devalued. Since most painters depended upon the monasteries and the royal court, they had to conform to strict religious principles and a strict life, which showed in their pictures. They could not just paint any picture lest they lose their commissions from monasteries and court.

Spanish art of the seventeenth century has produced very many works of genius, but most represent lives of saints, scenes of the Holy Family, or portraits of the royal court, diplomats and the Spanish noblemen. Some paintings represent strange phenomena that were looked at as curiosities by the court: Juan Carreno de Miranda made a painting of a very fat girl while Jose de Ribera made one of Maddalena Ventura, a married woman and mother who had suddenly grown a beard. So, a strange twist for the bizarre and the extreme, possibly a reaction against too much religious strictness, remained in Spanish culture. Zurbarán, although a very gifted painter, was also caught in these themes. His genius lies in having given us, notwithstanding the restrictions, magnificent paintings in which the Spanish zealous soul is depicted.

The two best Zurbarán Saint Francises are the ‘Francis Standing’ of Lyon and Barcelona, and the ‘Francis in Ecstasy’ of Munich. In the Munich painting, Francis also looks upward, with open mouth, at a vision. But here the Francis is less earthy, gentler. Yet the skull is present, reminding how a monk has forfeited pleasures of life and how close he is to a death he can but desire, to be near God.

Zurbarán’s Saint Francises are utterly Spanish. The colours are Spanish. The browns, greys, sombre tones that are the tones of the beggar Orders, are preponderant. Dark and light are used to emphasise mysticism, surprise, and loneliness. Zurbarán painted Saint Francis particularly in the Lyon/Barcelona pictures in a mystical miracle scene, and in the dark of Francis’ crypt-tomb. The religious fervour is Spanish. The simplicity and the subjects are Spanish. These are no Italian monks full of joy and life. The Spanish Zurbarán Saint Francises are monks who live in abject poverty, have abandoned all possessions, live in holes and caves like hermits, with always death close. Zurbarán has represented Saint Francis as a simple, innocent peasant boy. Zurbarán himself was born out of a farmer’ family, so he must have seen closely these uncomplicated peasant boys that were made into monks.

Many of Zurbarán’s paintings of Saint Francis depict him with a skull, as if Francis was linked directly to death. The real Francis of course was much more lively, full of joy. He liked to laugh and was constantly surprised at the wonders of life and nature. But these Saint Francises of Zurbarán are never painted in an environment of nature: never a pasture, a tree, a plant, a bird. They were painted in the dark interiors of Spanish monasteries. Compare the paintings to the bright, clear tones of Fra Angelico. Compare Zurbarán’s paintings and colours to his contemporary Rubens.

The seventeenth century was Spain’s Golden Age for paintings, but it was also the Golden Age of the Netherlands and of France, and all these ages were golden for Italian art. There is an enormous difference in gaiety of life between the Baroque paintings of Rubens, the classic intellectual paintings of Nicolas Poussin, the marine scenes of the Dutch commercial painters, the Bolognese Guido Reni, and the ecstasy of the Spanish Zurbarán. Yet Zurbarán is a genius by his own right, his ‘Saint Francis Standing’ represents the art of his country. The picture represents a part of the European character and as such belongs with Zurbarán to our spiritual heritage with the same importance as Pieter Paul Rubens, Nicolas Poussin or Guido Reni.

Other paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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