The thirteenth-century founder of the Franciscan order wears the long-hooded habit of a Capuchin—the rigorously observant branch of the Franciscan movement that was founded in the sixteenth century—and is shown kneeling on a rocky promontory, high above a distant valley. He fervently embraces a crucifix, his gaze directed heavenward in an expression of pained ecstasy, his head shown against the light of an evening sky. The tangled, spiny leaves of a thistle plant dominate the lower left while to the right is a still life of a skull, an open book, wild rose vines, and ivy: the saint has been contemplating mortality quite as he embraced a world of penance and sacrifice.
From the time this picture appeared on the art market and was published by Brigstocke (1980), it has been recognized as a masterwork by one of the most technically innovative artists of the seventeenth century, the Genoa-born Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione. Castiglione is a complex artist. Arrogant, with a volatile temper (in 1646, he slashed an altarpiece he had painted before the court of the Doge in a heated dispute over its value), his work is ceaselessly explorative. It draws on a variety of sources that range from the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck, both of whom had worked in the international port city; the etchings of Rembrandt, which he studied for the dramatic treatment of light and the expressive line of his etching needle; and the contrasting work of Nicolas Poussin, Pietro da Cortona, and Gianlorenzo Bernini, whom he came to know during his two sojourns in Rome (1630–35/37 and 1647–51). The MMA picture dates from the artist’s maturity and is the fruit of his most experimental work as a graphic artist. A brilliant printmaker and draftsman, he was the inventor of the monotype and an innovator in the use of brush oil drawings (see, for example, 65.176)—techniques that would be masterfully taken up again in the nineteenth century by Degas. It is from these mediums and sources that he derived the singular painting technique of, on the one hand, short, repeated diagonal brushstrokes to describe the saint and crucifix and, on the other, a richly impastoed surface to give a tactile physicality to the astonishing still life of plants, skull, and open book set among the rocks. The relationship to his graphic practice is best demonstrated by comparing the painting with a series of extraordinary and closely related drawings of Saint Francis in which the artist explored the emotional range inherent in the subject (H.M. the Queen, Windsor castle). As in the painting, in some of these we find the saint’s face depicted as though drained of blood, in a state of spiritual ecstasy.
Images of Saint Francis proliferated from the thirteenth century on. However, it is only following the sixteenth-century movement known as the Counter Reformation that the saint becomes a paradigm for personal religious experience. In their desire to return to the Franciscan order's original rigors, the Capuchins revived the earliest sources relating to the life of Saint Francis, and the present scene takes its point of departure from the life of Saint Francis written by Saint Bonaventure in 1261, chapter IX, titled, "Of His Ardent Love, and Yearning for Martyrdom." There we read: "Christ Jesus Crucified was laid, as a bundle of myrrh, in [Saint Francis’s] heart's bosom, and he yearned to be utterly transformed into Him by the fire of his exceeding love." To this end Francis would retire to desert places, fast and meditate. "With such glowing love was he moved toward Christ, yea, and with such intimate love did his Beloved repay his, that it seemed unto the servant of God that he felt his Saviour almost continually present before his eyes. . . ." (St. Bonaventure's Life of St. Francis, Everyman's Library, New York, 1973, pp. 358–590). This is the moment of spiritual ecstasy Castiglione paints. In Genoa, the iconography of Saint Francis was memorably treated by Bernardo Strozzi (1581–1644), who was a Capuchin, as was Castiglione’s brother. Saint Francis is usually shown half length, his arms outstretched—a reference to his stigmatization (see the Museum's painting by Federico Barocci, 2003.281). Where Castiglione’s painting differs most decisively from this tradition is in its scale, pictorial brilliance, and the transformation of a meditational mode into one of compelling emotional fervor. He achieves this through the combination of a powerfully pyramidal composition, with the saint’s head and the crucifix he embraces forming the apex, and the application and manipulation of his painterly technique in a way that effectively suggests the ascent from the material world to the spiritual, with the saint’s head set against an aura of light in an atmospherically clouded sky with the light concentrated along the horizon and behind the saint's head. The thistle plant in the lower left is appropriate to the rocky setting, but it also serves as a metaphor for the agitated, ecstatic state of the saint. There can be no question that in painting this work Castiglione was much influenced by the example of Gianlorenzo Bernini, whose sculpture, with its combination of sensuality and religious expression, must have made a lasting impression during his second trip to Rome. The crucifix especially recalls Bernini's work and the emotional tenor bears comparison with the sculptor's statue of Saint Jerome in ecstasy in the Chigi Chapel in the cathedral of Siena, which postdstes Castiglione's painting but suggests the common religious devotional culture that informs both.
The work has the scale of an altarpiece, and although it cannot be connected with any known commission mentioned in early sources, it was doubtless created for a Capuchin convent or a supporter of the order. It has been proposed that the picture possibly served as the principal altarpiece of the Capuchin’s church at Campi, near Genoa, but this remains no more than a hypothesis, and it would seem strange that the artist's principal biographer, Raffaelle Soprani, does not mention a work so easily accessible. The picture must be contemporary with an altarpiece of the Immaculate Conception that Castiglione painted in Rome in 1649–50 for a Capuchin convent in the Marchigian town of Osimo (the Capuchin movement originated in the Marches). The altarpiece was commissioned by Cardinal Girolamo Verospi after having been turned down by Pietro da Cortona, and this suggests another possible scenario (for the documents related to the Immaculate Conception, see Ada Maria Gabrielli, Commentari 6 , pp. 261–66).