This depiction of Saint Francis kneeling in Meditation is one of the ten different compositions that El Greco created for the representation of the Saint and in which he evolved a new iconography in accordance with dictates of the Council of Trent. These emphasized the themes of penitence and contemplation of death, which had not thus far been so closely associated with the Saint. Hence, in a number of these compositions Saint Francis is depicted meditating upon eternal life, as represented by the crucifix leaning against the skull, a theme underscored in the present work by the branch of ivy, a symbol of immortality, set prominently against the dark wall of the cave.
The present work is a small, later version of the well-known painting belonging to The Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, which is generally dated betweeen 1595 and 1600. Long obscured by discolored varnish, and very extensive overpainting, the quality of the smaller canvas has been impossible to assess accurately until its recent cleaning, from which it has emerged in excellent condition.
Unknown in the literature until published by Harold Wethey in 1962 (loc. cit.), the painting was obviously seen by him in an extremely dirty state. Thus, he described Saint Francis's robes as 'greenish grey', the ivy leaves as 'brown rather than the usual green', and the book as of a 'reddish-brown colour [that] replaces the brilliant green of the original...'. As a result he considered the painting to be from the workshop of El Greco.
Since removal of the repaints, however, the painting has been found to be of very high quality and in remarkably good condition. Its colors are consistent with El Greco's cool palette, its glazes are largely intact, and the paint surface's lively texture has not been deformed by lining pressure. The cartellino at the lower right, on which the signature is hardly visible in natural light, was found upon examination with infra-red light to bear traces of an original signature (Fig. 1). Exactly what caused the signature to become nearly invisible in natural light has not been explained (other than the restorer's theory that it was bound to the rest of the painting in a different medium, which may have reacted differently to light or cleaning solvents).
This phantom signature notwithstanding, on purely stylistic grounds it is obvious that this deftly painted canvas is an original work by El Greco related in some way to the larger composition in the San Francisco museum (bid., no. 219). The exquisite modelling of the face and hands is matched in no other version except that in San Francisco. Yet this subtlety is achieved by more direct means in the present, smaller painting, with much of the paint applied thinly in a wet-on-wet technique. In areas of great relief, such as the hands, paste-like highlights have been brushed over already dried layers of darker flesh tone. Throughout the painting the artist has employed brushes of many different sizes and degrees of pliancy, so that his touch is constantly varied and the surface enlivened in unexpected ways. This is particularly evident in the painting of the grey habit and around the eye of the saint where small, stiff brushes were drawn through still-wet paint expressly to give sparkle to the surface. In defining the light moustache and stubble along the jaw, the artist has used elegant, nervous strokes of the thinnest brush to give the impression of soft facial hair. To soften forms, especially drapery folds, he has drawn a very pliant, broad brush across wet contours, purposefully blurring them. These are all traits of El Greco's style which his assistants and imitators sought to copy but which they could never master with the vibrancy seen here.
The painting's technique is similar in some ways to that of the small Holy Family with Saint Anne and the Infant Saint John the Baptist in the National Gallery of Art, Washington. It has been pointed out that the Washington picture served as a ricordo of the larger painting of the subject now on long-term loan to the Museo de Santa Cruz, Toledo (ibid., no. 87). Whether this small Saint Francis Kneeling in Meditation was painted as a modello for the San Francisco painting or as a ricordo of it is a question that must be weighed in relation to the other versions of the subject. In the end, it might very well be neither, as it was El Greco's habit to repeat his compositions, often on different scales, over long periods of time.
As in the case with the Washington Holy Family, there are numerous differences between the present painting and the larger version. Most notably, the figure of Saint Francis is more elongated, and the physiognomy of his face is somewhat different. Furthermore, the grey habit in the present, smaller work is rendered with less incidental detail than in the larger one. El Greco has not depicted, for example, the large diagonal patch that appears along the hem at the lower left of the San Francisco painting. These differences are not typical of those smaller-scale versions of El Greco's paintings most likely to be contemporaneous autograph replicas, such as the San Ildefonso, in the National Gallery of Art, Washington (ibid., no. X-361); Saint Joseph and the Christ Child, on loan to the Museo de Santa Cruz, Toledo (ibid., no. 254); and the recently auctioned Saint Francis and Brother Leo Meditating on Death (Christie's, London, Dec. 13, 1996, lot 129, sold 1,486,500=$2,452,725). All three of these faithfully replicate the proportions and internal relationships of their respective originals, even though there are always subtle differences in modelling and brushwork.
The differences that distinguish this Saint Francis from the large painting in San Francisco are those typical of the artist's reprises of earlier compositions. A parallel can be found in the several versions of El Greco's Saint Dominic in Prayer, first realised in the example of 1585-1590, formerly in the collection of Jaime Urquijo Chacn (ibid., no. 203). About fifteen years later, the artist painted the composition again for the Cathedral of Toledo (ibid., no. 204), modifying the drapery folds and using far freer and more expressive brushwork. In the final decade of his life, he took up the composition once again, in the version now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (ibid., no. 205). In the latter, which is somewhat smaller in scale and not particularly well preserved, the figure is elongated and the head somewhat smaller in proportion to the body. The head is painted with remarkably expressive brushstrokes, as is the head of this small Saint Francis. This and the figure's elongation would suggest a date about 1605-10, or even later, for the painting catalogued here.
Among the several workshop replicas of Saint Francis Kneeling in Meditation, that of the highest quality is the one in The Art Institute of Chicago (ibid., no. 220), which probably dates from around the same time as the San Francisco version, as it repeats rather closely its features and proportions. Wethey felt that El Greco probably put the finishing touches on the Chicago canvas himself, but the general level of its execution lacks the brilliance and subtlety of either the San Francisco painting or the present version. This superiority of these two versions is evident throughout, but especially in the painting of the large rock at the right, on which the book, the skull and the crucifix rest. This scintillating passage in both the large and the small works is another example of those aspects of El Greco's technique that his assistants could not successfully imitate.
The present painting is executed on beautiful chequered canvas of the same type and pattern used by El Greco in the contemporaneous works he painted for the altar of the Hospital of Charity at Illescas. Throughout his career El Greco seems to have preferred to use high-quality mantel, or mantelillo, instead of a simple lienzo, for many of his important commissions. Thus, the Espolio, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, as well as the painting from Illescas, those from the Capilla de San Jos, those from the Colegio de Dona Maria de Aragn, and many others are painted on patterned-weave linen, which was no doubt considered finer, more beautiful, and possibly more durable.
It was first noted by Francesco Pacheco following his visit to El Greco's studio in 1611, that the artist kept smaller versions (called orginales by Pacheco) of his successful compositions, which were used by himself and his assistants in creating replicas of popular compositions. Not many of these ricordi have been identified, and distinguishing them from smaller versions executed on commission is not easy. It is possible that the small painting catalogued here is the work described in El Greco's death inventory of 1614 as 'Un san franco pequeno' (see F. de Borja de San Roman y Fernndez, El Greco en Toledo, Nuevas investagaciones acerca de la vida y obras de Domenico Theotocopolu, 1910, p.192). The same painting was described in greater detail seven years later in the inventory made by El Greco's son, Jorge Manuel, on the occasion of his marriage: 'Un san franco de rodillas, de tres quartas de alto y dos terzias de ancho (A kneeling Saint Francis, three-quarters high and two-thirds wide)' (see F. de Borja de San Romn y Fernandez, 'De la vida del Greco (Nueva serie de documentos inditos)', in Archivo espaol de arte y arqueologia, III, 1927, p. 7). Following the practice of the time, the dimensions given in the inventory only approximate those of the known canvases to which they correspond, but the rough coincidence of size (the metric equivalent in this case is about 63 x 55cm.) and the painting's high quality open the possibility - and it can only be described as such - that this was the small version that was in El Greco's studio when he died.
Despite the important role they must have played in the functioning of El Greco's workshop, the autograph small versions of his compositions have never been subjected to systematic study. The more they are studied, however, the more it becomes apparent that one can make no sweeping generalizations about them. Some were probably modelli executed prior to the larger versions. Others were contemporaneous replicas, executed on commission, and finally, others such as the present canvas were probably reprises of earlier compositions, painted on commission for clients who wanted certain devotional images on a more intimate scale.
We are grateful to Dr. William B. Jordan for the above catalogue entry.