The Milwaukee Art Museum’s painting by Francisco de Zurbarán (Spanish, 1598–1664), Saint Francis of Assisi in His Tomb, has been popular with museum goers since it entered the collection in 1958. This is probably not surprising, since Zurbarán’s work is infused with a humanity that connects instantly with viewers.
Some of this power derives from the fact that Zurbarán based his painting style on traditional polychrome sculptures found in Spanish churches. Just like his better-known contemporary, Diego Velazquez (Spanish, 1599–1660), Zurbarán’s hyper-realistic paintings helped to inspire devotion in seventeenth-century Catholic Spain. In this post, we’ll take a closer look at how Zurbarán inspired devotion not only in seventeenth-century Spain, but also how he does it today.
Biography of Francisco de Zurbarán
Francisco de Zurbarán was born on November 7, 1598 in Spain. As a child, Zurbarán was a talented painter and was sent to Seville in 1614 to apprentice with the artist Pedro Diaz de Villanueva. Although artists in Spain, most notably the master polychrome sculptors, where an important influence on Zurbarán, he also found inspiration in the Italian painter Caravaggio (1571–1610)’s use of dramatic lighting and well-planned compositions.
Zurbarán eventually traveled to the Spanish capital of Madrid in 1634. It was during this time that he was named an official painter of the king. When Zurbarán took a break from his time at the capital and moved to the Spanish coast, he was commissioned by convents and missionaries of the New Spanish colonies.
Zurbarán returned to Madrid in 1650. It was during this period of his life that Zurbarán created his most famous works, including Christ Carrying the Cross, which is in the Orleans Cathedral in France. Zurbarán remained in Madrid until he died in 1664.
Art and the Council of Trent
During the seventeenth century in Europe, the subject of Catholic art was a source of tension. Protestants accused the Catholic Church of opulence and overuse of religious art. They argued that the Catholic Church’s use of art was resulting in idolatry, or the worship of objects rather than God Himself, and that art should only be a secular endeavor. Eventually, the Catholic Church convened the Council of Trent, which between 1545 and 1563 attempted to address the grievances of the Protestants, including art.
Catholic art responded to the turbulence caused by the Protestant Reformation by acting as a didactic tool to reinforce the Catholic doctrine. Spanish artists and their “counter-reformation” production worked so successfully in keeping Catholics faithful that the Pope deemed Spain as the “most Catholic Nation.”
Art in seventeenth-century Spain had to be many things at once. It was a teaching tool that taught Catholic morals. It had to be both aesthetically pleasing and represent the grandeur of the religious. But, there was a fine line between making an image that inspired piety and prayer and one that was revered as an idol. Some argued that art that was too beautiful and too realistic would confuse the uneducated people. In particular, polychrome sculpture caused concern.
At its most basic, polychrome sculpture is simply a sculpture that is painted. In Spain, most polychromed sculpture is for religious purposes, and depict Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and the saints. The tradition was particularly powerful in the seventeenth-century, when great pride was taken in how realistic the sculptures would appear. The goal was to inspire intense devotion from those who looked upon the sculptures. They would be most often located in churches, but they would also be the centerpieces of celebration during festivals and parades (they continue to be used in this way today, and you can see in this video).
The process of making a polychrome sculpture is long and complicated. You can see a video from the Getty Museum on how this is done below.
Early in the seventeenth-century, two types of workshops would produce one polychrome sculpture. The first workshop sculpted the intricately detailed body, showing the veining in the hands and tear ducts at the corners of the eyes. Depending on the commission, polychrome sculptures would either have intricately sculpted clothes or a rough frame for the body, hands, and arms to sit that would be fitted with clothes made out of rich fabrics.
Once the sculpting was completed, the work would then be sent to a workshop dedicated to painting the sculpture. This was known as polychroming. The artists would spend a considerable amount of time on their piece. The sculpture needed to be as detailed as possible in order to seem realistic. Polychromers would even add glass tears to Mary’s face, or drops of blood around Jesus’s crown of thorns. This would add realism and help increase the sense of devotion. The end result would be a sculpture is hyper-real, one that almost seemed to come alive in front of the viewer.
Later in the century, masters such as Pedro de Meno (Spanish, 1628–1688) begin making the sculpture from start to finish in order to have complete control on the final product.
St. Francis and Devotion
Now that we understand the role of polychrome sculpture in Spain, we can see the influence it had on Zurbarán’s St. Francis of Assisi in His Tomb.
The most obvious point of comparison is in Zurbarán’s treatment of drapery. The folds of St. Francis’s heavy cloak are highly structured. The lines of the fabric are almost rigid, giving the piece a sculptural feel. In addition, the dark shadows emphasize the weight of the fabric.
You can see this comparison between painting and sculpture plainly in this photo showing a painting of St. Francis of Assisi by Zurbarán next to a polychrome sculpture by De Mena from the 2010 exhibition The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture, 1600–1700.
St. Francis of Assisi in His Tomb also parallels the polychrome sculptures in how it inspires devotion. The painting is massive, standing over six foot tall and three and a half feet wide. St. Francis fills the full length of the frame, the point of his hood just meeting the edge. Zurbarán depicts St. Francis alone in a dark room, holding a skull in between his hands. There is a single source of light shining down on St. Francis, creating a strong contrast between soft golden highlights and the dark shadows of his wool cloak. Even with the face covered in shadow, Zurbarán painted St Francis so realistically that is it hard not to question for a moment whether the subject is actually alive and in the room.
Such a realistic depiction of the saint, coupled with the mystery of not truly being able to see the subject’s face, draws in the viewer to contemplate St. Francis and his mystery. This is the true goal of Zurbarán, and most seventeenth century Spanish artists: to capture the viewer’s attention long enough for them to meditate on the Catholic themes of the image.
St. Francis captured the viewer’s attention when in a seventeenth-century religious context, but it does the same thing in a modern secular setting. The painting has been fascinating the public of Milwaukee since it was bought by the Milwaukee Art Museum in 1958.
Milwaukee newspapers heralded the painting’s arrival to the city. The painting made waves again in 1960, when newspapers reported on its massive conservation. Some articles even tied to create drama by wrongly hinting that the painting’s attribution to Zurbarán might have been in question.
Perhaps the most amusing reaction to the painting came in 1965. The Milwaukee Journal ran an article on how Zurbarán inspired a new line of fashionable coats and cloaks in Spain. The article depicts a few photos of the models in the new designs. One photo even shows the model contemplating St. Francis of Assisi in His Tomb.
The Zurbarán piece continues to be a highlight for museum visitors. The mysterious saint continuously inspires close viewing. Even in a secular setting, the impact of St. Francis of Assisi in His Tomb is just as strong as when Zurbarán first painted it in the seventeenth-century.
—Kelsey Rozema, Curatorial Intern