Obligatory St. Francis Post


When M was competing in the Triathlon Age-Group Nationals in Milwaukee this summer, the girls and I popped into the museum of art there on the shoreline of Lake Michigan. Because they were remodelling most of the collection was inaccessible, but there were a collection of photos from items that are housed there.

This one in particular caught my attention.

This is “Saint Francis in his Tomb” by the Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbarán, sometimes referred to as the Spanish Caravaggio (no surprise that I like him, then!).  Most of his work is on religious subjects; he has several paintings of Francis, one in the St. Louis Museum of Art very similar to this one, but I like this one best. Francis’s face is almost wholly in shadow, his attention squarely fixed on the skull he holds, and the stance of the right foot (no…left foot; thanks, Fr. J-J!) depicts him advancing directly toward us.

The power of the work, for me, rests in the tension between the depth of contemplation and the solemn inevitability. It welcomes us to a side of Francis which feels deeply true but rarely acknowledged.

(ETA: There’s an arresting simplicity in the overall composition. There’s a central brown scalene triangle imposed on a background divided vertically in half into light and dark with the darkness occupying central positions in the central triangle as well. The visual simplicity and structure adds a great deal to it.)

4 thoughts on “Obligatory St. Francis Post

  1. Derek Olsen Post author

    LOL! Indeed, quite *correct*… His left foot, the foot on the right as I look. (I constantly have issues with the left/right thing even when perspectives aren’t involved!)

  2. llurl

    Strangely enough what I see when I look at the dark foreboding painting I see a man afflicted with very severe Rheumatoid Arthritis in both his hand and feet. Certainly shows his part of being a person living a real life. Reality. I would have liked some light in the picture showing the process of out of darkness light.
    Perhpas I should ask myself if you could do better why don’t you do it.
    Because, this painting says it all and this is the starting point.

  3. Derek Olsen Post author

    Interesting! I didn’t read the arthritis there; thanks for suggesting that. I like the dark, but I think the light on the right side does add to that. I’ve been pondering the position of the skull. Why is it upside down? Is it symbolizing a reversal of death and thereby resurrection? I wonder if the skull should be interpreted chiefly as a symbol of death or as a symbol of the self in which case it might indicate a reversal of self-understanding. I find both avenues of thought fruitful…

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