Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Saint Francis in Ecstasy

Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (Il Grechetto) (Italian, Genoa 1609–1664 Mantua)
ca. 1650
Oil on canvas
77 × 53 1/4 in. (195.6 × 135.3 cm)
Credit Line:
Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift; Gwynne Andrews Fund; and Gift in memory of Felix M. Warburg from his wife and children, Bequest and Gift of George Blumenthal, Bequests of Theodore M. Davis, Adele L. Lehman, in memory of Arthur Lehman, Helen Hay Whitney, Jean Fowles, in memory of her first husband, R. Langton Douglas, and Gifts of Coudert Brothers and Harry Payne Bingham Jr., by exchange, 2014
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 601
Wearing a Capuchin habit, Saint Francis (1181/1182–1226) is shown on a rocky precipice, silhouetted against an evening sky. He was famously devoted to Christ crucified and is shown in a state of ecstasy. The open book and skull are symbols of the vanities of the world and mortality. Castiglione employs a richly varied technique to mark the transition from the material world to the spiritual. The picture was painted in Rome, probably as an altarpiece, though its original location is unknown.
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 [1955], pp. 261–66).

[Keith Christiansen 2014]
?[Gilberto Algranti, London, late 1970s]; Art Advisory S.A., Switzerland (sold to Roret); Roret S.A., France (sold to Matthiesen); [Matthiesen Fine Art Ltd, London, by 1979–81; sold to Johnson]; Mr. and Mrs. J. Seward Johnson, Princeton, N.J. (1981–his d. 1983); Barbara Piasecka Johnson and the Barbara Piasecka Johnson Foundation, Princeton, Warsaw, and Monte Carlo (1983–2012; sold to Matthiesen); [Matthiesen Fine Art Ltd, London, 2012–14; sold to MMA]
London. Matthiesen Fine Art Ltd. "Important Italian Baroque Paintings 1600–1700," 1981, no. 16 (as "St. Francis in ecstasy adoring the Crucifix").

Genoa. Accademia Ligustica di Belle Arti. "Il genio di Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione il Grechetto," January 27–April 1, 1990, no. 29 (lent by Barbara Piasecka-Johnson, Jasna Polana, Princeton).

Warsaw. Royal Castle. "Opus Sacrum," 1990, no. 44 (lent by Barbara Piasecka Johnson).

Maastricht Exhibition and Congress Center. "The European Fine Art Fair," March 15–24, 2013, not in catalogue.

Hugh Brigstocke. "Castiglione: Two Recently Discovered Paintings and New Thoughts on His Development." Burlington Magazine 122 (May 1980), pp. 293–94, 297, fig. 2, publishes the picture as with Matthiesen Fine Art; dates it to the same time as the altarpiece of the Immaculate Conception painted in 1649–50 for the Capucin church in Osimo (Minneapolis Institute of Arts); also relates it to two oil sketches on paper in the Royal Collection, Windsor: "Saint Francis Embracing the Cross" (inv. 3978) and "Saint Francis in Prayer" (inv. 4006); notes that this work displays the influence of contemporary Roman art, especially Pietro da Cortona and Bernini, and also of Bernardo Strozzi.

Important Italian Baroque Paintings 1600–1700. Exh. cat., Matthiesen Fine Art Ltd. London, [1981], pp. 44–47, no. 16, ill. (overall in color, detail in black and white).

Timothy Standring in "dal Seicento al primo Novecento." La pittura a Genova e in Liguria. Vol. 2, Genoa, 1987, p. 168, fig. 152, mentions it in connection with Castiglione's latest works, of 1662–63, on p. 168, but dates it about 1658–60 in the caption.

Timothy Standring in Il genio di Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione il Grechetto. Exh. cat., Accademia Ligustica di Belle Arti. Genoa, 1990, pp. 145–47, no. 29, figs. 117 (color), 147, dates it to the end of the 1650s; notes Ratti's mention of the altarpiece depicting the stigmatization of Saint Francis on the high altar of the Capuchin church at Campi (see Standring and Clayton 2013), but does not associate it with this painting.

Adam S. Labuda and Mary Newcome in Opus Sacrum. Ed. Józef Grabski. Exh. cat., Royal Castle, Warsaw. Vienna, 1990, pp. 252–57, no. 44, ill. (color).

Bénédicte Bonnet Saint-Georges and Didier Rykner. "TEFAF, Maastricht 2013." The Art Tribune. March 22, 2013, p. 1, fig. 1 (color) [].

Timothy J. Standring and Martin Clayton. Castiglione: Lost Genius. Exh. cat., Buckingham Palace. [London], 2013, p. 121, suggest identifying it with the altarpiece of the stigmatization of Saint Francis mentioned by Carlo Giuseppe Ratti ("Descrizione delle pitture, scolture, e architetture. . . ," Genoa, 1780, p. 11) on the high altar of the Capuchin church at Campi near Genoa.

Patrick Matthiesen in Visions & Ecstasy: G. B. Castiglione's St Francis. London, 2013, pp. 18–20, 28–31, fig. 3 (color), ill. pp. 12–13 (detail), 30 (color).

Helen Langdon in Visions & Ecstasy: G. B. Castiglione's St Francis. London, 2013, pp. 42–45.

Jonathan Bober in Visions & Ecstasy: G. B. Castiglione's St Francis. London, 2013, pp. 47–50, 58–61, 63–64, 68–70, 72–73, figs. 14, 15 (color details), ill. pp. 46, 62 (color details), dates it to Castiglione's last years in Rome, 1650–51; discusses its relationship to the Osimo altarpiece in Minneapolis and also sees the influence of Rubens, Van Dyck, and Strozzi; finds it likely that the Campi altarpiece mentioned by Ratti refers to this picture (see Standring and Clayton 2013); relates two studies of Saint Francis in the Royal Collection, Windsor, to this painting: one of the two mentioned in Brigstocke 1980 (inv. 903978) and a second, "Saint Francis in Prayer(?)" (inv. 903977).

Keith Christiansen. "La création tardive d'une collection de peintures baroques au Metropolitan Museum of Art / Creating a Baroque Collection at the Metropolitan Late in the Game." Aux origines d'un goût: la peinture baroque aux États-Unis / Creating the Taste for Baroque Painting in America. Paris, 2015, pp. 68, 73.

Stephan S. Wolohojian in "Recent Acquisitions, A Selection: 2014–2016." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 74 (Fall 2016), p. 38, ill. (color), states that although its original location is unknown, the painting was probably an altarpiece.

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