What’s really cool about this painting is that it shows a story within a story. St. Francis lived in the 1200s and was a young man from a rich family. At 21, he renounced his wealth after a religious epiphany, choosing to live a life of poverty and chastity, and eventually founded the Franciscan Order of Christianity. In the 1400s, Pope Nicholas V visited the tomb of St. Francis at Assisi at the Basilica di San Francesco (right), and had his own vision—he saw St. Francis with the stigmata, as if he’d never been entombed, walking towards him. Zurbarán shows this moment, specifically: as if we are Pope Nicholas V, seeing the dark, otherworldly, but also remarkably realistic image of St. Francis slowly walking towards us in the flickering torchlight.
If you really want to put this painting in context, look no further than Netflix. In 1972, Italian filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli directed the biopic Brother Sun, Sister Moon, focusing on the life of St. Francis. You can rent the movie to see the whole story of St. Francis’ life.
Chelsea Emelie Kelly was the Museum’s Manager of Digital Learning. In addition to working on educational technology initiatives like the Kohl’s Art Generation Lab and this blog, she oversaw and taught teen programs.