“Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy” by Caravaggio
“Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy” by Caravaggio depicts Saint Francis at the moment of receiving the signs of the Stigmata, the wounds left in Christ’s body by the Crucifixion. In 1224 Francis retired to the wilderness with a small number of his followers to contemplate God. While he was praying on the mountain of Verna, Francis is said to have had a vision. As a result of his vision, he received the stigmata.
Brother Leo, who had been with Francis at the time, left a straightforward account of the event:
“Suddenly, he saw a vision of a seraph, a six-winged angel on a cross. This angel gave him the gift of the five wounds of Christ.”
Suffering from these stigmata and trachoma, Francis received care in several cities to no avail. In the end, he was brought back to a hut next to the Porziuncola. Here, in the place where the Franciscan movement began and feeling that the end of his life was approaching, he spent his last days dictating his spiritual testament. He died about two years after the “Ecstacy” event in 1226.
This painting was the first of Caravaggio’s religious canvasses and dates from 1595 when he had recently entered the household of Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte. Caravaggio’s painting is less dramatic than the account given by Brother Leo. A gentle two-winged angel replaces the six-winged seraph, and there is none of the violent confrontation described by Leo, no streams of fire, no pools of blood, or fiery images of Christ.
The subject “Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy” had been a popular one ever since the 13th century, and Caravaggio’s version is much more intimate and marks a sharp change of theme and style. The saint, who has the features of Del Monte, is portrayed sinking back peacefully into the arms of a gentle angel. The angel bears a resemblance to the boy in Caravaggio’s paintings “Boy Peeling a Fruit,” to the winged Cupid on the far left of “The Musicians,” and to the boy being cheated in “Cardsharps.”
There is little indication or sign of the Stigmata, or blood, except the wound near his heart. Yet the atmosphere is spiritual with the two figures lit by an unearthly light in the dark night-time landscape. The scene is at once real and unreal. Caravaggio’s patron, Del Monte, kept it till the end of his life, and several copies went into circulation and were much valued.
Francis of Assisi
Francis of Assisi (1181 – 1226) was an Italian Catholic friar, deacon and preacher. He founded the men’s Order of Friars Minor, the women’s Order of Saint Clare, the Third Order of Saint Francis, and the Custody of the Holy Land. Francis is one of the most revered religious figures in Christianity.
In 1223, Francis arranged for the first Christmas live nativity scene. According to Christian tradition, in 1224, he received the stigmata during the apparition of Seraphic angels in religious ecstasy, which made him the second person in Christian tradition after St. Paul to bear the wounds of Christ’s Passion. He died during the evening hours in 1226 while listening to a reading he had requested of Psalm 142.
Francis was Canonized in 1228 and was designated Patron saint of Italy. He later became associated with patronage of animals and the natural environment, and it became customary for churches to hold ceremonies blessing animals on or near his feast day of 4 October.
Francis was buried in 1230, under the Lower Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi., but his tomb was soon hidden on orders of Brother Elias to protect it from Saracen invaders. His exact burial place remained unknown until it was re-discovered in 1818. In 1978, the remains of Saint Francis were examined and confirmed by a commission of scholars appointed by Pope Paul VI and put into a glass urn in the ancient stone tomb.
The Stigmata in Christianity is the appearance of bodily wounds, scars, and pain in locations corresponding to the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ, such as the hands, wrists, and feet.
Stigmata are primarily associated with Roman Catholicism. Many reported stigmatics are members of Catholic religious orders. St. Francis of Assisi was the first recorded stigmatic.
Many stigmatics have been exposed for using trickery.
A seraph is a type of celestial or heavenly being originating in Ancient Judaism. The term plays a role in subsequent Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Tradition places seraphim in the highest rank in Christian angelology and in the fifth rank of ten in the Jewish angelic hierarchy. A passage in the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1–8) used the term to describe six-winged beings that fly around the Throne of God crying “holy, holy, holy.” This throne scene, with its triple invocation of holiness, profoundly influenced subsequent theology, literature, and art.
Its influence is frequently seen in works depicting angels, heaven, and apotheosis. Seraphim are mentioned as celestial beings in an influential Hellenistic work, the Book of Enoch, and the Book of Revelation.
Brother Leo’s Account
“All of a sudden, there was a dazzling light. It was as though the heavens were exploding and splashing forth all their glory in millions of waterfalls of colors and stars. And in the center of that bright whirlpool was a core of blinding light that flashed down from the depths of the sky with terrifying speed until suddenly it stopped, motionless and sacred, above a pointed rock in front of Francis.
It was a fiery figure with wings, nailed to a cross of fire. Two flaming wings rose straight upward, two others opened out horizontally, and two more covered the figure. And the wounds in the hands and feet and heart were blazing rays of blood. The sparkling features of the Being wore an expression of supernatural beauty and grief. It was the face of Jesus, and Jesus spoke.
Then suddenly streams of fire and blood shot from His wounds and pierced the hands and feet of Francis with nails and his heart with the stab of a lance. As Francis uttered a mighty shout of joy and pain, the fiery image impressed itself into his body, as into a mirrored reflection of itself, with all its love, its beauty, and its grief. And it vanished within him. Another cry pierced the air. Then, with nails and wounds through his body, and with his soul and spirit aflame, Francis sank down, unconscious, in his blood.”
Caravaggio was active in Rome, Naples, Malta, and Sicily from the early 1590s to 1610. His paintings combine the realistic observation of the physical and emotional human situation with the dramatic use of lighting. He made the technique of darkening shadows and transfixing subjects in bright shafts of light his dominant stylistic element.
His influence on the new Baroque style that emerged from Mannerism was profound. In the 20th century, interest in Caravaggio’s work revived, and his importance to the development of Western art has been elevated.
Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy
- Title: Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy
- Also: The Ecstasy of Saint Francis
- Artist: Caravaggio
- Created: 1594
- Medium: Oil on canvas
- Periods: Baroque
- Dimensions: Height: 92.4 cm (36.3″); Width: 127.5 cm (50.1″)
- Museum: Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut
- Name: Michelangelo Merisi (Michele Angelo Merigi or Amerighi) da Caravaggio
- Birth: 1571 – Milan, Duchy of Milan, Spanish Empire
- Died: 1610 (aged 38) – Porto Ercole, Grand Duchy of Tuscany
- Movement: Baroque
“What begins in the work of Caravaggio is, quite simply, modern painting.”
– André Berne-Joffroy
Photo Credit 1) Caravaggio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons