El Greco painted some eleven treatments relating to the life of Saint Francis during his lifetime, many of which exist in several autograph and numerous studio versions. The present painting however is one of only three autograph versions of this rarely seen composition by the Greek master. The two other works, published by Wethey as El Greco and studio and dated circa 1590-95, are a painting (oil on canvas, 75 by 57 cm.) in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Pau and another (oil on canvas, 110 by 87 cm.) that originally hung in the Capilla de San José in Toledo, which then passed into the collection of the Conde de Guendulain y del Vado, Toledo (when published by Wethey), before being subsequently sold to a North American private collector during the 1990s.1 It seems likely that all three versions reflect a lost original entirely by the hand of the master.
Wethey also lists nine school versions, only two of which are from the artist’s workshop, whilst the remainder include a copy by Blas Muñoz (signed and dated 1683), today in the Casa del Greco, Toledo, and two later copies in the Academia de San Carlos, Mexico and the Museo de Arte, Sao Paulo, attesting to the enduring popularity of the design.
In common with the majority of the artist’s treatment of the subject, El Greco has created a design of great simplicity in which the Saint is depicted in three-quarter length, with only minimal details to the landscape, a skull - a symbol of man's mortality - placed prominently in the left foreground, with the Saint gazing in ecstasy to the divine light emanating from above. The palette is restricted to a predominance of greys and browns, to add further to the sobriety of the scene and create an ascetic, humble depiction of the Saint that conformed to the spirit of the Counter Reformation, following the Council of Trent (1545 - 1563) that denouced the excessive adornment of religious imagery.
The present work is extremely close in handling to the version formerly in the Capilla de San José, Toledo, which Wethey gives to El Greco and workshop. The aqueous treatment of the eyes, the use of carmine to the lips, the black outlining of areas such as the hands, the beautiful draughtsmanship and modelling to the skull, the impressionistic brushwork to the habit and freely sketched background are all stylistically consistent with the work of El Greco, as also the distinctive marks close to the centre right margin where the artist has cleaned his brush during execution of the work.
1. See H.E. Wethey, El Greco and His School, Princeton 1962, vol. II , p. 121, nos. 217 & 218, the latter reproduced vol. I, p. 263.
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