Today on Museum Quick Bites we’re taking a solemn step forward with Francisco de Zurbarán’s, Saint Francis of Assisi in His Tomb (c1630-1634). Cast in shadow, this haunting piece features a hooded Saint Francis holding an upturned skull. Barefoot he strides toward us, as if to step off the canvas.
St. Francis of Assisi in His Tomb (c1630-1634) by Francisco de Zurbarán, Milwaukee Art Museum, Photo by cjverb (2017)
Despite Zurbarán’s use of muted colors, Saint Francis glows. This technique, called tenebrism, enhances depth and drama by creating a stark contrast between light and dark, where darkness dominates. So lifelike, art historians claim Zurbarán’s figures are akin to sculpture.
St. Francis of Assisi in His Tomb (close up of head, skull & feet; c1630-1634) by Francisco de Zurbarán, Milwaukee Art Museum, Photo by cjverb (2017)
Notice the pointy hood and heavy folds of St. Francis’ Jedi-like cloak. His bearded face, hidden in the shadows contemplates his ghoulish offering. At first glance I thought the golden skull was a chalice. This memento mori is a message to us, the living, to be aware that death is always near. Which adds to the eerie vibe of this painting. Can you hear the Gregorian chant and see the flicker of candlelight inside his drafty crypt? It also begs the question, why is St. Francis visiting his tomb? Is this yet another reminder of our mortality?
Fun Francisco Fact: Saint Francis of Assisi (c1181-1226) lived and preached a life of poverty and charity, in an effort to emulate Jesus. A lover of all God’s creatures, Saint Francis is the patron saint of ecology, and the co-patron saint of Italy. If you’d like to take a deeper dive into his life, click on this Saint Francis of Assisi link, courtesy of Britannica. If you’d like to learn more about his fellow patron saint of Italy, Saint Catherine of Siena, click on this Museum Bites: Catherine’s Head link.
St. Francis of Assisi, Sacro Monte di Orta,
Photo by Mattana, Wikimedia Commons
Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664) was born in Fuente de Cantos, Spain. The youngest of six children, Zurbarán displayed artistic talent at a young age. When he was 16, he moved to Seville to apprentice with painter, Pedro Diaz de Villanueva. Within a few years he set up shop, married, and eventually become the official painter of Seville in 1629. His reputation and commissions for his work flourished. Best known for his religious art, Zurbarán was nicknamed the Spanish Caravaggio for his use of tenebrism.
Left: The Crucifixion (1627) by Francisco de Zurbarán, Art Institute of Chicago
Right: St. Bonaventura Lying in State (1629) by Francisco de Zurbarán, Musée du Louvre
In 1634, court painter, Diego Velázquez (c1599–1660) hired Zurbarán to help paint the newly refurbished royal palace in Madrid. Zurbarán was responsible for painting scenes from the life of Hercules for the Hall of Realms.
Left: The Veil of St. Veronica (c1635-1640) by Francisco de Zurbarán, National Museum of Stockholm
Top Right: St. Hugo in the Refectory (c1655) by Francisco de Zurbarán, Museo de Bellas Artes de Sevilla, Wikimedia Commons
Bottom Right: Hercules Fights the Hydra of Lerna (1634) by Francisco de Zurbarán, Museo del Prado, Wikimedia Commons
Unfortunately, Zurbarán’s life was riddled with tragedy. He was widowed twice and many of his children died in infancy. His son, Juan, also a painter, succumbed to the plague at age 29. Furthermore, Zurbarán’s career took a hit. According to TheArtStory his later paintings became more sentimental than spiritual and thus fell out of favor. In failing health, Zurbarán struggled to get paid for his work. He died in poverty, in Madrid at the age of 66. If you’d like to see more of his work, click on this Zurbarán link, courtesy of Google Arts & Culture.
Left: The Immaculate Conception (1661) by Francisco de Zurbarán, Budapest Museum of Fine Arts, Wikimedia Commons
Right: Monument of Francisco de Zurbarán in Badajoz, Spain, Photo by Julo, Wikimedia Commons
That concludes our tomb walk with our two Franciscos. If you’d like to get a live look-see of Saint Francis’ actual tomb, located in the Basilica di Francesco in Assisi, click on this Cripta di San Francesco live webcam link. I’ll be back next week with more Museum Quick Bites. Until then be safe, be kind and take care 🙂
Cover photo by Jose Antonio Alba, courtesy of Pixabay.