Saint Francis in Meditation by Francisco de Zurbarán

Saint Francis in Meditation by Francisco de Zurbaran (1635-9)

Francisco de Zubarán was a Spanish painter whose painting genre was that of religious works depicting monks, nuns, saints and martyrs.  He was also a popular still-life painter.  He was an artist who was renowned for his use of chiaroscuro, a form of art which is characterised by strong and bold contrasts between light and dark, which affected the whole composition.  It was for this use of chiaroscuro that he was known as the Spanish Caravaggio, named after the Italian Master and his use of the technique to dramatic effect.

Francisco was born in Fuente de Cantos in Extremadura in 1598.  As a child he liked to draw images in charcoal and at the age of sixteen his father sent him to Seville to train as an artist.  It was whilst he was a student that he took up Caravaggio’s realistic use of chiaroscuro and tenebrism, a style of painting using a very pronounced chiaroscuro in which there are violent contrasts of light and dark and in fact the darkness becomes a dominating feature of the image.  Because of Caravaggio’s frequent use of tenebrism in his paintings the word Caravaggism or Caravaggesque tenebrism are often used synonymously for the term.

My Daily Art Display for today is a perfect example of this style used by Zurbarán.  It is a painting he completed in 1639 entitled Saint Francis in Meditation.  It is not what you would expect of a painting of a saint. It is one of the most bleak and gravest of Zurbarán’s paintings of saints.   To me, there is an air of menace about the work of art.  It is a matter of conjecture as to whether it was the artist’s idea or that of the people who commissioned the painting, to make the work dark and sinister.   It has to be remembered that at the time Zurbarán painted this picture several monastic orders in Spain had gone out and challenged both painters and sculptors to bring more life to the religious figures in their works and by doing so the religious orders believed that viewers would be inspired to imitate the saints they came across in art.  The viewers were coming face to face with their religious heroes.  In those days many Spanish artists studied the polychromatic wooden sculptures by the likes of of Martínez Montañés, Gregorio Fernández, Juan de Mesa, Pedro de Mena and Alonso Cano and by doing so were able to add an austere realism to their paintings.  In fact many of the young Spanish artists, including Zurbarán and the young Velazquez, learned how to paint the surfaces of these sculptures as part of their artistic training.

Let us now look more closely at the portrait of Saint Francis.  The background is plain and dark adding to the intensity of the painting.  Nothing is allowed to detract from this solitary figure at prayer.  We see him on his knees.  It is a lifesize portrait.  As he clasps a skull to his chest,  the artist would have us believe that he is meditating on the subject of death.   Such meditation on death was looked upon, especially by the Jesuits, as a religious exercise,  as it was considered to be the probable point of union with the ultimate truth.  Saints contemplating skulls was often seen in Spanish and Italian paintings in the early 17th century.  Saint Francis is lost in meditation and does not see us, the viewers,  as we stare in at him. 

We cannot see his face clearly as although there is light eminating from the left hand side, his face is almost in darkness due to the deep shadow cast  from his cowl.  We can barely make out his eyes and so we are deprived of his facial expression.  Actually there is a similarity to the eye-sockets of the upturned skull he is holding and what we can make of the eyes of the saint.  Just a coincidence ?  We can just make out his mouth.  His lips are parted as he utters the words of his prayer.

Look at his habit.  It is patched and well worn and looks to be made from a coarse  material, which would not afford the wearer any comfort.  It is held together by a dark brown knotted rope.  See how the light falls on the threadbare part around the elbow.  Zurbarán is reminding us of the Saints vows of poverty.  We are also to believe that this is a ‘working man’ by the way the artist has shown his hands and his dirty fingernails.

This is both a moving and disturbing painting but, at the same time, one I will make sure to go and see the next time I visit the National Gallery in London.  This abrasive style of Zurbarán made him very popular in the mid sixteenth century but then along came another artist from Seville with a much gentler and softer style of painting which then became more fashionable.  The artist was Bartolomé Esteban Murillo and his rise to fame and fortune was in direct contrast to Zurbarán’s fall from favour and his last days were spent in poverty.  Like life in general, I suppose one should clasp hold of the good times as you never know when they are about to end.