St. Francis in Meditation

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Francisco de Zurbaran, St. Francis in Meditation, 1635
By ELLIE SCHNEIDER

At the time Zurbaran painted this, the Counter-Reformation movement was well alive in Seville. During this religious transformation, St. Francis was adopted as an icon of the movement. St. Francis preached to the poor after he had a vision where he was instructed to save the church. St. Francis helps the movement grow, but artists like Zurbaran, Murillo, and Ribalta sometimes struggled with this transforming religion in their work.

Zurbaran was known for his still lifes and deeply moving portraits. His depiction of St. Francis is a portrait rather than a religious piece. That’s not to say the subject does not have religious meaning, but this work lacks the mystical magic of El Greco’s Burial of the Count of Orgaz or The Vision of St. Anthony by Murillo. This realistic portrait of St. Francis makes the religious ideas more acceptable to people. Rather than created a grand, overwhelming altarpiece, Zurbaran painted this understated religious portrait, which commands the same emotional attention as any work, but lacks the theatrical aspects in the work. Zurbaran appears to cut away the religious fluff, such as cherubs and heavenly clouds, to get at the real story of St. Francis and the Counter-Reformation movement.

St. Francis kneels on the ground wearing a tattered and patched robe. The worn-in parts of his robe show his religious dedication and repeated position of prayer. He firmly holds his hands together around the top of the skull. He is a dark room, but light shines from the left side, possibly from a window. The light casts shadows that add even more drama to the piece. St. Francis looks up in prayer as if he is looking for G-d, and his mouth is agape in awe as if he found G-d.

The skull rests in the hands of St. Francis and stares up at him. St. Francis also looks up, away from the memento mori, or reminder of death, and instead looks towards the heavens. Rather than stare death in the face as Zurbaran did in other depictions of St. Francis in meditation, he has him longingly look towards heaven. In this moment, St. Francis appears to be asking if G-d is present just as death is present in the work. Another way to view it is that as St. Francis comes to terms with death, but his soul also ascends to heaven and solidifies his spot as a religious icon.

Zurbaran’s attention to detail makes St. Francis appear alive. This religious portrait is better than most family portraits at the time, but St. Francis does not appear physically different from your average man. Zurbaran appears to send the message that St. Francis is not any different from himself or yourself. While St. Francis’ soul could ascend to heaven, Zurbaran that his body will die as any mortal man. To emphasize this, St. Francis is weighed down by his large robe. Any viewer at the time would be able to relate to this image and its ideas. In the time of religious transition, people searched for new understandings and connections to G-d. St. Francis’ search for G-d in the painting was accessible to the viewers, who at that time, were searching for the same thing.

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