I love the simplicity of this painting. The artist’s limited color palette and simple background ensure nothing distracts the viewer from the subject matter at hand. The artist is Francisco de Zurbarán, a Spanish painter who was prominent in the 1650s and heavily influenced by the Italian painter Caravaggio. In fact, his nickname was “Spanish Caravaggio” for his mastery of contrasting light and dark (a method call “chiaroscuro” that Caravaggio was known for).

Zurbarán primarily painted religious works depicting monks, nuns, and martyrs. The subject matter of this painting is St. Francis at a moment of profound contemplation, his head tilted, lips slightly parted, hands clasped in fervent prayer. Although we can barely see his face, we know that his eyes are looking heavenward. His clothing is coarsely textured and roughly patched which fits the saint’s vow of poverty. Francis cradles a skull in his hands, a symbol of death and Christ’s crucifixion—the subject of Francis’ meditation. Although it is hard to see, his hands are marked with the stigmata (the wounds of Jesus) which Francis was believed to have received in 1224 during a retreat in the Apennines. The three knots in his rope girdle each represent a vow Francis would have taken: chastity, obedience, and poverty.

This painting has hung in the National Gallery in London since 1853. When it was first purchased, the acquisition was heavily criticized, being described as a “small, black, repulsive picture.” Today it is considered one of Zurbarán’s greatest works.

Being Human Connection: In the gospel of Mark, Jesus reminds us of the importance of quiet time, meditation, and contemplation. Mark says, “In the morning, long before dawn, Jesus got up and left the house, and went off to a lonely place and prayed there.” These few words reveal how important prayer was for Jesus. Everything he did flowed from spending time on his own with his Father. Just before Mark says this, he explains how busy Jesus’ to-do list had become. Jesus was healing, spending time with the sick, casting out demons, and dealing with oppressive crowds (Mark 1:29-39). Then Mark brings the focus back to what is essential: prayer. The secret of Jesus’ ministry wasn’t to do more but to withdraw to a quiet place and spend some time with his Father. We can learn a lot from Jesus and St. Francis. In the midst of our busy to-do lists, solitude can fuel the soul. 

Featured art: Francisco de Zurbarán, Saint Francis in Meditation, 1635-39