El Greco, Saint Francis Kneeling in Meditation, c. 1605–10

Gray-cloaked figure kneels in front of crucifix, skull, and book

El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos)

(Krití region (Crete), Greece , 1541–1614, Toledo, Spain)

Saint Francis Kneeling in Meditation

c. 1605–10

Oil on canvas

29 7/8 x 25 in. (75.9 x 63.5 cm)

Meadows Museum, SMU, Dallas. Museum purchase, Meadows Museum Acquisition Fund with private donations and University funds, MM.99.01

Listen to Meadows Museum docent Carol Faulkner discuss this work (2:42 minutes)

Audio Transcript

El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos) (1541–1614)

Saint Francis Kneeling in Meditation, c. 1605–10

by Carol Faulkner, Meadows Museum docent

El Greco created a design of great simplicity in which the saint is depicted full length with only minimal details to the landscape. The painting’s energy is focused on Saint Francis in prayer, who founded the Franciscan order. Look at the long fingers and elongated curved body. El Greco tended to elongate the human figure. This pose gives a sense of wonder and ecstasy with divine nocturnal light emanating from the upper right corner. The red dot on the hand shows that Saint Francis received the stigmata or the wounds of Christ. The palette is restricted to a predominance of grays and browns to further add to the sobriety of the scene. Notice the freely sketched background and the impressive brushwork to the habit, which are all stylistically consistent with the work of El Greco. He used a similar background in most of his paintings of Saint Francis, of which ten compositions exist.

In Christian religious painting, certain images have religious meaning. The ivy in the upper left corner represents eternal life. In the lower right, the crucifix, resting on a skull and a bible or perhaps a breviary, are icons representing Christ’s suffering and salvation, the skull representing mortality and eternity. The small white paper, perhaps, was a place to hold El Greco’s signature.

El Greco was born in Crete in 1541. He was a Greek artist whose paintings and sculptures helped define the Spanish Renaissance and influence various art movements. Around the age of thirty-five, he moved to Toledo, Spain, where he lived and worked most of his life. One of the reasons for seeking a career in Spain, after studying with Titian in Venice, must have been knowledge of Phillip II’s great art projects. However, his connection with the court of Phillip II was brief and unsuccessful. Afterwards he painted extensively for the churches and monasteries in Toledo.

After his death, his works fell into obscurity. It would take 250 years for El Greco to gain a newfound appreciation in the twentieth century.