Although Saint Francis (1181-1226) had wanted to be forgotten after his death, requesting that his body be left on a rubbish-dump outside Assisi, his popularity grew rapidly after his canonization in 1228. The humanity of the rich merchant's son who renounced worldly possessions was recorded for posterity by such works as Saint Bonaventura's biography, authorised in 1266, as well as by the Saint's own writings. The order which Saint Francis had founded with eleven companions in 1209-10 grew until virtually every city in Catholic Europe had a Franciscan house. Already in 1316 there were 1,017 Franciscan friaries and 292 convents in Italy, France and Germany alone, and in the following centuries Franciscans rose to the supreme office of the Catholic church as Popes Sixtus IV (1471-84) and Sixtus V (1585-90). Saint Francis's message held a particular appeal in the age of the Counter Reformation, and when El Greco settled in Toledo in 1577 the city had no fewer than seven Franciscan convents and three friaries, the most important of which was very near the artist's house. El Greco evidently shared his contemporaries' feeling of affinity for the Saint, whom he depicted in no fewer than ten distinct compositions, in which he evolved a new iconography in accordance with the dictates of the Council of Trent, emphasizing his extreme asceticism, devotion and humility in contrast with earlier representations. Francisco Pacheco, the painter, influential artistic theorist and future father-in-law of Velázquez who visited El Greco at his home in 1611, called him the greatest interpreter of Saint Francis of his time (The Art of Painting, 1649).
Wethey lists two signed versions of this composition by El Greco, one in the Joselyn Art Museum, Omaha, which he dates circa 1580-1585, and another in the Torelló collection in Barcelona, that he dates to about 10 years later. Both these include slightly more of the lower half of the figure of the Saint, as well as a signed piece of paper below the skull, and differ in the disposition of Christ's head and in details of His loin cloth. All three vary in the formation of clouds in the upper left corner. Wethey lists a further variant of the composition as in the collection of the Marqués de Santa María de Silvela y de Castañar, as El Greco and Studio, and indeed the possibility of studio assistance cannot be ruled out for the present work, as would so often be the case with a composition that was clearly popular and much in demand in El Greco's time (Wethey, op. cit., II, p. 123, nos. 222-224, and figs. 273-274 and 279). While Wethey had not seen this picture and judged it as 'the best of the school pieces' off a photograph, Legendre and Hartman, Camón Aznar and Frati all concurred with a full attribution to the artist.
Wethey cautiously follows Camón Aznar in recording that this picture belonged to the artist Jean-François Millet, although it was not apparently listed in the posthumous sales of his studio. However Charles Tillot's introduction to the catalogue of the sale on 10-11 May 1875 does mention a picture by El Greco that hung by Millet's bed. Tillot quotes the French artist on his death bed saying 'je connais peu de tableaux qui me touchent, je ne dirai pas davantage, mais autant; il fallait avoir bien du coeur pour faire une oeuvre comme celle-là'. 'Ce dernier mot' continues Tillot, 'peint Millet tout entier. Comme le Greco, il a mis son coeur dans son oeuvre'.