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.
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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