Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio, “Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy”, c. 1594-1595, Oil on Canvas, 92.5 x 127.8 cm, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut
While most other Italian artists of his time followed the conventions of late Mannerist painting, Caravaggio painted the Biblical stories as dramas, staging the events of the sacred past as if they were contemporary, often working from live models whom he depicted in starkly modern dress. He also developed a highly original form of chiaroscuro, using extreme contrasts of light and dark to emphasize details of gesture or facial expression, a style that greatly influenced later artists.
“Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy” was the first of Caravaggio’s religious canvasses. Completed between 1594 and 1595, it was presumably painted as a commission from Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, a diplomat and art connoisseur during the reign of Pope Sixtus V, and executed during the time that Caravaggio was living in Palazzo Madama, the home of Cardinal Del Monte.
The painting is based on the story told by Brother Leo, secretary and confessor to Saint Francis of Assisi. In the story, Francis retired in 1224 to the wilderness with a small group of his followers to contemplate God. At night on the mountainside, Brother Leo saw a winged seraph, one of the higher Orders of angels, come down amidst dazzling light as a fiery figure nailed to a cross of fire.
From the seraph’s wounds in its heart, hands and feet came streams of fire and blood, which pierced the hands and feet of Francis with nails and stabbed his heart with a lance. As Francis shouted, the fiery image merged into his body; Francis sank down unconscious in his blood with the wounds of the Stigmata on his body.
In Caravaggio’s “Saint Francis”, the violent confrontation described by Brother Leo is not depicted. Instead, a gentle angel, larger than the unconscious saint, is shown holding Francis, while Francis’ followers are seen dimly in the darkness of the painting’s mid-ground.
Caravaggio’s version of this 13th century subject is more intimate than Giotto di Bondone’s 1297 “Stigmatization of Saint Francis” or Giovanni Bellini’s 1480 “Saint Francis in the Desert” with its rocky landscape. Caravaggio’s work shows no sign of blood or the Stigmata, just a wound shown in the Franciscan robe of the saint. Francis rests peacefully in the arms of a boyish figure wearing a white robe and golden wings; both figures lit by Caravaggio through a chiaroscuro effect.
Note: An interesting read is “Caravaggio’s Secrets” by Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit by The Mit Press. An excerpt from the book, Chapter One, “Sexy Secrets”, can be found at: https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/first/b/bersani-caravaggio.html