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Frame by Frame

At the MFA, comfort in the arms of an angel

This sweet and mystical picture was painted by the notoriously crabby Italian painter Orazio Gentileschi in about 1600. The painting came into the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts only two years ago and now hangs in its newly refurbished Koch Gallery.

It is the first of four attempts by Gentileschi to address the theme of Saint Francis in ecstasy, a popular standard at the time. Saint Francis was one of the most beloved and — by the authorities — heavily promoted saints of the Counter-Reformation.

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Both his emotional spirituality and his relative proximity in place and time (he lived in Assisi in the 12th and 13th centuries) dovetailed with a drive to bring the everyday magic of Christian stories within reach of all Catholics. Clarity, simplicity, and emotional identification were key.

Humble Saint Francis — lover of animals, preacher of sweetness and light — played a leading role in this new anti-Protestant program. He was the first recorded Christian to receive the stigmata. The spontaneous appearance of these wounds, echoing Christ’s on the cross, indicated intense spiritual identification.

Even though Gentileschi does not show the actual wounds here, it’s this moment of profound identification he is depicting. Saint Francis had gone with one of his followers to pray on a mountain in the Apennines, and mid-prayer, according to Christian lore, he had a vision of an angel with flaming wings carrying a crucified man.

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The vision made clear to Francis that he was to be transformed into a likeness of Christ, not — and this is crucial — through martyrdom, but through “enkindling of the heart.” Through love.

Given this emphasis on identification with Christ, it’s no surprise that the pose here loosely echoes the traditional pose of the Pieta, the dead Christ in the arms of his mother, Mary. (It also echoes depictions of Christ’s Agony in the Garden that show Jesus in the arms of an angel.)

Only four or five years earlier, Caravaggio had revolutionized depictions of Saint Francis, becoming the first to paint the saint cradled by an angel, making the connection with the Pieta explicit. Gentileschi was just getting to know Caravaggio when he painted this work. (The angel’s wings and brown tunic seen here were later used as props in paintings by Caravaggio.)

Not everything about the Gentileschi painting is technically wonderful. The light on the saint’s habit feels a little generalized and rote, and the angel’s thrusting leg, though compositionally dynamic, feels anatomically not quite right.

But the whole effect is very beautiful. The picture has a quietude and intimacy that’s alluring. The angel’s blushing color provides a perfect counterpoint to the blood-drained face of Saint Francis in his swoon.

You feel his weight as your own (look in particular at that hand dangling pitifully inside the voluminous sleeve). The sensation of identification — which is what the painting is finally all about — is reinforced by the forward thrust of his lower body into our own space.

The support the angel offers here so tenderly, so solicitously, is support we all need, ambushed as we are, again and again, by the engorgements of love, the brevity of life.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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