Zurbaran St Francis In Meditation Analysis Essay

"Saint Francis in Meditation," oil on canvas by Francisco de Zurbaran.

"Saint Francis in Meditation," oil on canvas by Francisco de Zurbaran.

The Timken Museum of Art has purchased Zurbarán’s 1635 masterpiece “Saint Francis in Meditation,” the first acquisition in a decade for the 50-year-old Balboa Park institution and the second Zurbarán acquired by a San Diego museum this year.

“Being able to celebrate our 50th anniversary in this way is really spectacular,” said Timken general manager Megan Pogue. “It’s something the board has been working toward for years.”

Zurbarán, with Velázquez and Murillo, was a leading figure in 17th century Spanish art. He was remarkably prolific, with he and his workshop producing hundreds of canvases. At least 35 of them, painted during different periods in his life, depict St. Francis.

One of those paintings, thanks to a gift from Conrad Prebys and Debbie Turner in celebration of the centennial of the Panama-California Exposition, entered the collection of the San Diego Museum of Art earlier this year. That 1655 canvas, Zurbarán’s “St. Francis in Prayer in a Grotto,” is believed to have cost in excess of $1.5 million.

Pogue said the seller of “Saint Francis in Meditation” asked the museum not to disclose the sale price. Individual donors to the museum’s acquisition fund, and major gifts from the Timken Foundation and Donna K. Sefton, covered the cost of the painting.

“I’m thrilled for them to have it,” said scholar and conservator David Bull, the Timken’s interim director who was instrumental in the acquisition. “It’s a fabulous painting and I think it fits superbly into their collection.”

While the San Diego Museum of Art’s acquisition bolstered an already distinguished Spanish collection, the Timken’s acquisition joins a Spanish collection of a single painting, albeit a superb painting, Murillo’s 1660-70 “Christ on the Cross.”

“I actually thought this was a very good thing,” Bull said. “This will add to the San Diego Museum of Art next door, their Zurbaráns and their Cotán.

“Spanish painting is so important in San Diego. This is adding strength to strength rather than competing in any way. I feel this very strongly. I feel this St. Francis is an earlier period than the one they (SDMA) have, and it shows a totally different way that he was painting. It’s a matter of looking at the painter in all his different styles, different periods.”

Bull said he first saw the Timken’s painting about five years ago when someone asked him to look at an entire collection that had been passed down through the family.

“This young man had inherited from his father, who had inherited from his father, quite a collection,” Bull said. “Some things were mediocre, but there were one or two or three or four very good ones, and this was one of them.”

The individual asked Bull to clean the painting, which he did, and then it was put up for sale. Pogue said the Timken acquisition committee first saw it in 2011, when John Wilson was director, with a selection of other paintings for consideration. Nothing was acquired, and Wilson and the museum parted ways last year, prompting Bull’s interim appointment, the museum’s restructuring, and Pogue being named general manager earlier this year.

The board, headed by Tim Zinn, asked Bull to put together another selection of paintings for possible acquisition to celebrate the Timken’s 50th anniversary.

“I gathered about 26, 27, 28 different paintings, and I threw in the Zurbarán, because I knew it hadn’t sold,” Bull said. “I put in because I liked it and thought it was a terrific picture. But there was a whole range, from landscapes to flowers to beautiful women.”

Bull said he heard nothing for weeks, and then to his surprise, the committee said they liked the Zurbarán the best.

“I never, never expected that,” Bull said. “But I thought it was fabulous that they did.”

The new painting was unveiled Friday at the museum’s 50th anniversary gala, the Orange & Black Ball and will continue on public view.

“It’s a very, very tough painting for a lot of people,” Bull said. “There are no bright colors and it’s very somber. But I find it intensely moving. It’s a remarkable painting.”

(Frick Collection, New York)

In the late 1200's, less than a century after the death of St. Francis, Giotto gives us the classic image of his stigmatization. On a wall at the Franciscan basilica at Assisi and on a panel from Pisa now at the Louvre, the saint genuflects on the ground and raises his head and hands to a miraculous vision, a six-winged angel with the body of Christ that hovers in the sky above him. Laser-like rays of light emanate from this angel and strike the saint in the hands, feet and side, piercing his flesh with the five wounds of the crucified Christ. Light rays aside, Giotto plays by the book. This is exactly how the earliest Franciscan sources describe their founder’s stigmatization, an event that occurred near the end of his life while he was in retreat on the mountain of La Verna. Revolutionary in its day for the solidity and three-dimensionality of its figures, Giotto’s image looks uncomfortably naive to modern eyes–more so than his slightly later and more renowned Arena Chapel frescoes. The sky on the Louvre panel is a flat field of Medieval gold, while the fresco’s sky is an equally flat but more beautiful blue; the mountains are absurd little polished peaks, and the figures are Medievally out of proportion with their surroundings. All of these devices focus our attention on the central spiritual drama, the mystery of a man communing with an angel. For Giotto, this miracle is the whole story, and any additional details would only distract the viewer and detract from the painting’s power. In the 1290's, when the Renaissance was but a thin line of light on a distant horizon, this image was more than enough.

If we have Giotto’s paintings in mind when we walk into the room at the Frick Collection where Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in Ecstasy hangs between two great portraits by Titian, we might well marvel about what a difference two centuries can make. Now, on the eve of the High Renaissance, Francis stands on a meticulously detailed mountain ledge bristling with carefully observed plants and a few small animals. Behind him, a realistic Italian landscape rolls away to a distant horizon. The saint stares up into the light, his lips are parted and tiny stigmata appear in his palms, but there is no visible angel, no crucifying rays. Where Giotto’s mode was anecdotal and illustrative, Bellini’s is less literal, more poetic. So poetic, in fact, that scholars disagree on the exact subject of the work: are we witnessing the stigmatization or some other, less obvious scene from Francis’s later years? This question may or may not be answerable, but either way it misses the point of the painting. For Bellini does much more than merely illustrate a scene from the saint’s life; he creates a visual equivalent of Francis’s teachings.

This painting is a work of nature poetry. The saint looks into the heart of light and opens his arms to embrace the source of all life. The sun’s light falls equally on the saint, the rockface, the spiky trees, the donkey and the towers of the nearest town, suggesting the essential unity of all creation, the brotherhood of all creatures. From the rabbit that emerges from the rocks below Francis’s right arm to the shepherd and his flock in the background, all are united in the same sunlight that inspired Francis’s best-known hymn, The Canticle of Brother Sun:

...Be praised, my Lord, with all your creatures,
Especially Lord Brother Sun,
To whom we owe both day and light,
For he is beautiful, radiant and of great splendor;
Of you, most high, he is the emblem.1

While evoking the saint’s sacred nature poem, Bellini creates his own interesting harmonies. The slight backward lean of Francis’s body rhymes with the strangely angled tree at left and is echoed by the contours of the rockface behind him: the animate and inanimate worlds impinge on one another. The diagonal slope of the small ridge behind the saint rhymes with the background hill topped by a dominating, high-walled fortress. A parallel is thereby implied between the painting’s two bastions: the commanding fortress of worldly war and Francis’s crude shelter fashioned from timber and vines, the site of spiritual battle.

Color, though, is the work’s most important harmonizer. The entire painting is imbued with that marvelous color Bellini will pass on to Giorgione and Titian and that will characterize Venetian art throughout the next century. The warm earth tone of the saint’s robe is set off by the cool gray-green rocks, while its color harmonizes with both the foreground desk and the background towers and hills. Across the landscape the colors proceed from cool to warm, culminating in the golden background that eventually cools to a hazy blue and merges with the painting’s crowning achievement, that breathtaking, blue and white Bellini sky. This passage may be the work’s greatest epiphany, a showing-forth of color and light that even a modern atheist can whole-heartedly enjoy.

Bellini’s detailed, Flemish-influenced technique encourages the kind of close examination we would give to a painting by Jan Van Eyck, so let’s read this nature poem a little more closely by focusing on the passage directly behind the saint. The little garden plot is a constructed thing, built of brick-like rocks carefully placed together. It has been deliberately cultivated, as implied by the water jug on the ground, and now a tall stalk shoots dramatically upward, dwarfing the other plants and bursting into yellow blossom. The verticality and flowers of this plant harmonize with the saint’s form and color, and the top of the plant even bends slightly toward him. The whole passage seems to be an extended metaphor for what Bellini’s painting does not show: the slow, deliberate process of meditation (like planting and watering a garden) that may lead over time to revelation (the transcendent vertical stalk). Francis has cultivated his spiritual garden, and now it blossoms into ecstasy.

The saint stands entranced by spiritual beauty, but we are more likely to be impressed by Bellini's vision of the beauties of this world, the sheer loveliness of his landscape. For the saint (and probably for the painter as well), there is no contradiction here. Francis is wholly integrated into the landscape–indeed, he is dwarfed by the heavy rocks and twisting tree–and his gesture is as much an embrace of sunlight, and an acceptance of all the things of this world, as an expression of otherworldly devotion. Because for Francis all things truly do come from God, and material beauty is a sign of the beautiful spirit that created it. Francis is in retreat, but he is emphatically not apart from the material world; in fact, the saint in his cave is more of the world, closer to nature, than the town-dwellers ensconced behind their towered and gated walls. The background town resembles Assisi, where the young Francis, son of a rising bourgeois cloth merchant, felt the emptiness of the then-embryonic mercantile economy in a manner akin to that described by Wordsworth centuries later: "The world is too much with us; late and soon, / Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers: / Little we see in Nature that is ours..."2 Bellini, living and working in the commercial hotbed of Renaissance Venice, might have felt this tension between economic and spiritual necessities even more acutely than Francis, and he subtly encodes this duality into his painting as the contrast between the enclosed, fortified city and the open, boundless outside world that flows off the canvas in all directions. The landscape is so important here, and so deeply interfused with spiritual enlightenment, that one can’t help thinking of Romanticism. Communing with God, Francis is also communing with nature. He lays himself open to the beneficent influence of light and the world and lets it flood over him, breathe its warm breath into his body, inspire him. Bellini’s painting may be Western art’s first image of Romantic inspiration. It is an image of the consummation Shelley begs for at the end of "Ode to the West Wind":

...Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to the unawakened Earth
The trumpet of a prophecy!...3

Ostensibly creating a devotional picture of a saint, Bellini also paints a portrait of an artist–an indelible image of the mystery of inspiration.

Even as it anticipates Romanticism, however, the St. Francis remains a deeply Renaissance work. And like many self-conscious works of Renaissance art, it defines itself against a stereotyped view of the Middle Ages. This attitude is codified a few decades after Bellini’s death in one of the founding texts of Western art history, the Florentine painter Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists. The centuries between the decline of Rome and the birth of Giotto, Vasari argues in his preface, were truly a dark age, a time of political chaos, barbarian invasion and, most damaging of all to the arts, "the fervent enthusiasm of the new Christian religion."4 Belittling Byzantine art and ignoring Celtic manuscript illumination, both of which saw their golden ages in these centuries, Vasari paints an influential picture of the Middle Ages as a long, dark night that ended only with the gradual rise of Italian (mostly Florentine) art to Michelangelesque supremacy. The Venetian Bellini is considerably more subtle, but his painting contains a similar message. A gate bars the entrance to Francis’s cave; a screen of tall timbers separates us from his desk, Bible and memento mori skull; most importantly, the saint is turned away from all of this. He turns his back on Medieval monasticism and steps into the light. The dark cave of the Middle Ages is closed; it’s time to move out of the cloister and experience the world. Francis embraces the light and opens himself to the new beauty of the Renaissance, a natural beauty that–when the scientific revolution sparked by the Renaissance had run its course–would be entirely divorced from God.

Art historian Bruce Cole says this painting is set in the "late afternoon,"5 but it has always felt like morning to me. It’s about eleven o’clock in the morning of the Renaissance, and the sun is approaching zenith. The world is before us, a beautiful vision of harmony and light. Jacob Burckhardt credits the Renaissance with discovering the beauty of landscape, and it’s undeniable that before this era landscape barely existed in Western art, while afterwards it was a major genre. Bellini is one of the artists who gave the Renaissance its eyes, and this painting can still teach us how to see the world. Bellini’s vista of rolling hills and blue sky is the very definition of beauty, and after studying the St. Francis’s foreground we will never look at bare rocks or spiky weeds the same way again. But most of all there is the light–the beautiful light that holds Francis, the landscape and us under its spell. This light, it seems to me, is an overwhelming sign of hope. (Specifically, it’s Christian hope, but it can be understood much more generally–hope remains hope.) There is in this work a sense of possibility as infinite as the land and sky. It is one of the most optimistic paintings in the world.



(National Gallery, London)

Passing through the doorway that separates the Flemish Baroque rooms from the large Spanish room at the London National Gallery is like walking from a village carnival to a state funeral. After the amped-up magnificence of Rubens and Jordaens, with their sun-gilded celebrations of flesh and fertility, these Spanish canvases transport us to an altogether more somber place. The colors are toned down, the blacks are blacker, the backgrounds are spare, and the whole gallery seems bathed in a dimmer light, like the gloom of a Gothic cathedral on a rainy day. (The curators enhance this effect by hanging El Greco’s high-keyed Mannerist paintings among the Italians in a different wing of the museum.) King Philip IV, in his portrait by Velasquez, sets the tone. He is dressed in brown and silver (or so the painting’s title tells us; it looks more like black and gray) and placed against a background of sober red and black. He eyes us suspiciously, a decidedly un-merry monarch. Even the nude glory of Velasquez’s Rokeby Venus does little to lift the mood, her luscious, tactile flesh only emphasizing by contrast the monkish asceticism of her fellow countrymen. For these Spaniards, painting–like religion–is serious business, a matter of life and death that affords no time for the frivolities of Flanders.

Of course, this is a caricature. The paintings in the National Gallery reflect the tastes of English collectors, and these collectors tended to purchase works that accorded with the dark, Romantic image of Spain in which they wanted (or needed) to believe. To the rest of nineteenth-century Europe, Spain was an internal Dark Other, a land the Enlightenment forgot, a benighted place beyond the Pyrenees where superstition reigned and Inquisition ruled. In reality Spanish history has no monopoly on ecclesiastical torture and murder–the English, French, Germans and Italians also did their share–and the country’s long history of tyranny, from the Inquisition to the post-Napoleonic Restoration to the seemingly interminable years of Franco fascism, is due more to the brutal realities of war, invasion and cut-throat power politics than to any essential element of the ‘Spanish character’ or the ‘Spanish soul.’ But the dark dream of Spanish history has stuck (oddly, even the fact that Spain produced several of the greatest Modernist painters– Picasso, Dali, Miro, Gris–has done little to dissipate it), and it must surely have informed the National Gallery’s purchase, in 1853, of Saint Francis in Meditation by Francisco de Zurbaran.

Dressed in a brown monk’s cowl torn at the elbow, the saint kneels in an empty, shadowy space. He clutches a skull to his chest and gazes up, his lips parted as if crying out a plea to God. The realistic robe and strong Caravaggesque contrasts of light and shadow create an amazingly lifelike impression. As the saint emerges out of the darkness, the light catches one side of his hood and robe, a triangular patch of his face and his hands locked tightly around the skull. The cord of the saint’s robe parallels his own form, falling in a sharp vertical and then trailing horizontally along the floor. There are no other objects in the scene, nothing to distract us from the central drama of man and God.

This is a stark, sharply focused piece of Counter-Reformation propaganda. Its emphasis on interiority and private meditation is in perfect alignment with the teachings of that general of the Catholic troops St. Ignatius of Loyola, and it stands in sharp contrast to the Renaissance conception of St. Francis, as popularized by painters from Giotto to Bellini. "This is not the St. Francis of earlier legend," comments Robert Hughes, "warbling to the birds of Assisi about Brother Sun and Sister Moon. Spanish Catholicism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries invented a new St. Francis, a death-haunted monk whose images would force the faithful to think about their own dissolution."1 Instead of Bellini’s High Renaissance vision of St. Francis in Ecstasy–the saint standing in sunlight amidst the breathtaking beauty of a north Italian landscape–we have this image of passionate, solitary prayer in a monk’s cell. In the century between Bellini and Zurbaran, the anti-imaginative dictates of the Council of Trent brought down the curtain on the Renaissance, then in its late, colorful Mannerist phase. In the words of art historian Arnold Hauser, "what was in the mind of the Council of Trent was not an art which, like Mannerism, appealed merely to a thin stratum of intellectuals, but a people’s art, such as the Baroque in fact became."2 The necessity of propagandizing the populace spelled the end of courtly Mannerism; the luxurious full sunlight of the Renaissance gave way in Italy and Spain to the austerities of Baroque obscurity. And now, with Zurbaran, there is only this groping in the darkness, this turning toward the light.

What in this ultra-orthodox vision could possibly appeal to an atheist like me? The answer is in the shadows, in the blackness from which Francis has only begun to emerge, the darkness that veils the saint’s eyes like a blindfold and emphasizes the gaping eyesockets of the skull staring up at him. I propose a heretical interpretation of this painting, a reading that in Zurbaran’s Inquisitorial time might have earned me a fiery death at the stake. This is a very dark painting about the struggle for light, and I want to focus not on that light of salvation but on the darkness that symbolizes sin, death and damnation. Darkness surrounds the saint and is even inside him: his open mouth is a black hole, and most of his face and head is lost in the heavy shadows of the cowl. This suggests an inward struggle more profound than any fight against external demons. The dominant mood of the painting is that of an angst-ridden struggle with doubt. I think of the late sonnets of doubt and despair by my favorite Jesuit, the nineteenth-century poet and priest Gerard Manley Hopkins:

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring,
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing–
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief’.
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.3

Zurbaran’s image shares both the anguished, pleading tone of Hopkins and the poem’s consciousness of death. But for Zurbaran the thought of death is something even harsher than "a comfort serves in a whirlwind." Death is the black emptiness in the eyes of that skull. It is a darkness suggesting not the hells of Hieronymus Bosch but the nothingness of total annihilation. Embracing the skull, Francis clutches death to his heart, to the center of his darkness, and the horror of that annihilation, that consciousness of nothingness, compels him to turn toward the light.

Look at the hands clasped around the skull. Light and dark strongly alternate on the interlaced fingers, a contrast as stark as the white and black keys on a piano. The brighter the light, the deeper the darkness. This dialectic is locked into the visual structure of the painting and of the entire Caravaggist Baroque. The light of salvation and the darkness of sin are the terms of the debate, and each defines and intensifies the other. ("Light needs much dark in order to dazzle,"4 writes the poet Edmond Jabès.) In this sealed and simplified Baroque world, there can be no dramatic light without deep darkness, just as there can be no salvation without sin and no religious painting without strict adherence to Tridentine decorum. The great unintentional irony of Zurbaran’s work is that its officially sanctioned Baroque chiaroscuro undermines the very possibility of salvation, of the pure light of Christian truth. Since light and dark are interlocked and interdependent, even if Francis turns completely toward the light, he we still cast the darkest shadow. The saint can never escape from the darkness of doubt, can never break away from the presence of death.

This is the point in most discussions of Spanish art when critics bring in the concept of duende, so let’s get it over with. The twentieth-century Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca described the duende as a "struggle," a "power" and an "earth-force." It’s a black, demonic spirit that rises up from the Spanish earth and blood and is powerfully associated with the presence of death. Lorca differentiates it from the angel and the muse: "Angel and Muse escape in the violin or in musical measure, but the Duende draws blood, and in the healing of the wound that never quite closes, all that is unprecedented and invented in a man’s work has its origin."5 An American parallel would be the mysterious force that transforms sadness and pain into the Blues, a force that is the ultimate basis of jazz, R&B, rock n roll and most American popular music. "Whatever has black sounds, has duende," Lorca quotes a friend as saying, and continues: "These ‘black sounds’ are the mystery, the roots that probe through the mire that we all know of, and do not understand, but which furnishes us with whatever is sustaining in art."6

When I look at Zurbaran’s painting, I hear these "black sounds," this duende (however one may define it); the work is permeated with the overpowering force of death. We cannot know the truth, this painting says, until we take death, the full reality of death, into us and hold it close like a lover, embrace it. This is a deeply Existentialist painting, depicting the moment of anguish immediately preceding the Kierkegaardian leap to faith, that ultimate moment when you can turn either way. Either grasp at religious meaning, at the promise of an afterlife, or accept dark nothingness as the only reality you can know. (It’s a false choice, of course, like most choices offered by religion. The situation is only so stark because Zurbaran exiles the entire world from his canvas. There is only religious illumination and black void–no human world outside in which we might freely act and choose our lives.) The power of the painting lies in capturing this moment of turning, of fear and trembling, and in depicting it with enough ambiguity to suggest that the awesome reality of darkness, of the annihilation that is death, is every bit as powerful as the light.

This painting is the apex of Zurbaran’s art. Neither before nor after does he equal its tenebrous power. Later in his career, his work lightens in accord with changing tastes, and a St. Francis from this period shows the monk kneeling with his skull in a sunlit landscape; his face is brighter and the overall effect is weaker, lacking the anguished power of the London painting. It’s a more pleasant, more traditional vision: unconflicted, uncomplicated, uninteresting. And of course there’s the Temptation of St. Jerome in Guadalupe, a painting so delightfully bad that it deserves its own paragraph:

The St. Jerome is the Plan 9 From Outer Space of Old Master paintings, a work that can only be enjoyed as unintentional comedy. The saint in the wilderness raises his bony arms to ward off evil in the form of–what? Grotesque Boschian demons? Apparitions of terror and hellfire? Well, not exactly. His demonic tormentors are a group of attractive, tastefully attired Spanish women serenading the saint with lute and harp. The whole thing looks like a still from a lost Monty Python sketch about the tortures of the Inquisition: "Please! Please! No more chamber music! Have mercy!"

But the London St. Francis is an undeniably great painting, a work of awesome power. It blows all similar images away. Even in a crowded gallery at the Met’s 2003 Manet/Velasquez exhibition, the canvas’s quiet force was undiminished by the large crowds and the impressive company of works by Spanish and French giants. It is a powerful meditative image–a vision of religious meditation that rewards aesthetic meditation. It is one of the greatest images of spiritual anguish in Western art.



1. House, Francis, 268-9.

2. Norton Anthology of English Literature, 199.

3. Ibid., 678.

4. Vasari, Lives, vol.1, 36-37.

5. Cole, Titian, 14.


1. Hughes, Nothing, 65.

2. Hauser, Social History, vol.2, 125.

3. Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, 106-7.

4. "The Beginning of the Book," in Forche, ed., Against Forgetting, 583.

5. Lorca, Poet in New York, 162.

6. Ibid., 154.


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