This essay was written for the 2018 Write on Art prize, winning second place in the Year 12 & 13 category.

Instagram. Traffic lights. Times Square. The bright yellow box of Coco Pops confronting you in the kitchen cupboard.

Step back from the seething mass of colour in modern culture and stand here, before Zurbarán’s quiet masterpiece Saint Francis in Meditation.

Saint Francis in Meditation

Saint Francis in Meditation 1635-9

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664)

The National Gallery, London

Painted in Seville at the height of the Counter-Reformation, this work is devoutly religious and hugely disarming. It searches us, questioning, like a severe security guard at the airport: why are you travelling today? From where and to whom?

Or perhaps more aptly: why do you live? Who do you believe in? And where will you go when you die?

Saint Francis was the subject of many paintings by Spanish artists during the Counter-Reformation, largely due to the pious transformation involved in his story. Originally a wealthy merchant’s son living in opulence, he renounced all worldly goods following his conversion to Christianity in the early 1200s. For the Council of Trent, which met in the years 1545–1563 and promoted art that encouraged Protestant wanderers back to the Catholic faith, this embodied the attitude of life-altering repentance which they wished to inspire. In this desire, works of the Counter-Reformation often strove to involve the viewer with a clear narrative, drama and emotion, as well as the depiction of saints as spiritual role models and intercessors.

Zurbarán’s work here seems to fulfil this. Saint Francis kneels on the floor, hands clasped together in ardent prayer, chin tilted upwards to face the divine light radiating from above. He clutches a skull to his chest, reminding the viewer of their mortality and the necessity of immediate conversion. Stark tenebrism, so characteristic of Zurbarán’s style, bathes the figure in a light almost reminiscent of spiritual baptism, abolishing all setting and isolating Saint Francis as the single focus of the painting. Combined with its size, 152 x 99 cm, this forces the figure forward into the viewer’s space.

Yet despite this, Zurbarán seems to take the emphasis away from Saint Francis himself. The stigmata, so entrenched in Catholic perception of him, are barely visible: a faint mark, just distinguishable on his right hand, the only hint at their existence. The cord of Saint Francis, which traditionally held between three and five knots to symbolise the five wounds of Christ, is tied around his waist. However, only two of these five knots are shown.

Perhaps most significantly, the shadow from his Capuchin cowl plunges his face into darkness, his nose and mouth the only features touched by the light. Unlike many other depictions of Saint Francis by artists such as Caravaggio and El Greco, Zurbarán’s saint doesn’t focus his meditation down towards a crucifix, book or the skull in his hands. Instead, though death yawns up at him in the latter’s empty eye sockets, Saint Francis turns his face to God; lips parted in awe as he is caught in the moment of release and redemption. He is clearly undergoing an intense psychological experience, yet in contrast to the torment of later works like The Scream by Munch or Courbet’s The Desperate Man, Saint Francis doesn’t stare out of the canvas in emotional agony. Instead, there is a direction and peace implied in his gaze: he isn’t looking for something, but to someone. Coupled with Zurbarán’s reduction of the saint’s identity, this proposes that, through piety, anyone can experience a deep connection with God. Suddenly, the security guard steps out again to challenge us:

Why are you travelling today?

From where and to whom?

Zurbarán presents a clear choice: to kneel with Saint Francis in the light, or to melt into the darkness behind.

Felicity MacKenzie