Artists throughout the centuries have been inspired by St. Francis of Assisi. An early masterpiece by one of these artists, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, is “Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy,” held in the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Connecticut. This is the artist’s first known religious canvas and one of the most important Baroque paintings in an American museum collection. It showcases Caravaggio’s extraordinary style and technique: the theatrical use of light, naturalistic depictions of people and objects, and psychological narratives.
A Baroque Revision
After the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church amplified its emphasis on devotion to and emulation of saints, with the Italian St. Francis—who renounced his worldly wealth in favor of a life dedicated to poverty and service—being the most popular. The medieval and Renaissance portrayals of the saint evolved in the Baroque period to include a new composition: the saint after his stigmatization, supported by an angel. This format may have been first introduced in Caravaggio’s “Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy.”
In his biography “Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane,” Andrew Graham-Dixon writes, “In every sense—style, iconography, drama—the painting broke new ground.” Caravaggio was the first to show the saint lying down, cradled by a kneeling angel, at the moment that he received the stigmata, wounded on his right side but with no other signs of the stigmata on his hands and feet.
The two figures in “Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy” are bathed in a spotlight of divine light, emphasizing this poetic, mystical moment. Caravaggio refers to the established visual depiction of the Nativity with his painting’s nocturnal setting. Despite the painting’s dim landscape, one can just barely make out a group of shepherds seated and gathered around a campfire. This tenebrism (the use of extreme contrast of light and dark) intensifies dramatic effect and is strongly associated with Caravaggio’s work.
Identifying himself with St. Francis, Caravaggio used his own unshaven face as the model in “Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy.” This realistic depiction emphasizes that St. Francis was a real person from the relatively recent past. Keith Christiansen, curator emeritus at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, has written about how Caravaggio’s practice of using live, posed models for his paintings fostered a novel experience of recognition and relatability between a viewer and his artwork.
Saint Francis continues to be one of Christianity’s most influential figures. The current pope took his papal name from the saint. Likewise, Caravaggio remains one of the most significant and influential artists in history. The artist felt a strong connection to Counter-Reformation Catholic spirituality, which can be seen in his religious paintings. These include several depictions of St. Francis.
Caravaggio’s “Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy” was fundamental in his development as a painter with a unique and fresh style. As Graham-Dixon wrote, “Saint Francis of Assisi is more than an illustration of an episode in the life of a saint. The picture offers a consoling dream of transfiguration, a condition of oneness with Christ to which anyone might aspire.”