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, authorized 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 nunneries 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' 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 present painting, in which Saint Francis holds a skull in his hands while meditating upon death, is of the type understandably but misleadingly called by Manuel Cossío, op. cit., the 'Hamlet' Saint Francis, since Shakespeare's play, written in 1598-1602, was almost exactly contemporaneous. It shows a rarely-depicted moment during the Saint's forty-day seclusion, accompanied only by his disciple Brother Leo, at La Verna in the Tuscan Appenines in 1224, two years before his death, a period of fasting and prayer generally remembered only for his frequently represented stigmatization. The 'Hamlet' type was not only the most popular by far of the artist's representations of the Saint but of any of his subjects as well. One of the painter's few compositions to be engraved, by Diego de Astor in 1606 (Wethey, op. cit., 1962, I, fig. 276; and 1967, I, fig. 254), it exists in more than forty versions and copies, most of very poor quality: indeed, possibly of no other Spanish picture are so many early copies known. Harold Wethey ultimately included six versions in his catalogue of 'authentic works' (ibid., 1967, II, pp. 137-9, nos. 225-6 and 228-230A) and thirty-two under 'School Works, Copies, and Wrong Attributions' (ibid., pp. 247-52, nos. X-319-X-349). Of the six 'authentic' ones, the large painting (168 x 103.2cm.) in the National Gallery of Canada at Ottawa is universally accepted as the prime version and dated c. 1600-05 (Wethey no. 225; see also Dr. William B. Jordan's entry in the catalogue of the exhibition El Greco of Toledo, Museo del Prado; National Gallery of Art, Washington; Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio; and Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, 1982-3, p. 246, no. 38, and p. 115, colour pl. 21). An even larger version formerly in the Colegio de Doncellas Nobles, thought by Cossío to be an original but about which Wethey was rightly noncommittal since neither he nor any other living scholar has seen it, has been untraced since 1920 (Wethey no. 230). Of the other versions listed by Wethey as 'authentic', he himself describes one as a workshop production (his no. 228) and two others, that formerly in the Valdés Collection at Bilbao (his no. 229) and that in the Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania (his no. 230A), as partly workshop (the latter qualification being expressed only in the caption to fig. 278 in the English edition [the work is not illustrated in the Spanish edition]). The version formerly in the Bollag Collection in Zürich (his no. 226), which Wethey regarded as autograph but damaged, was offered unsuccessfully at Sotheby's on 1 November 1978, lot 67.
Francisco Pacheco remarked on El Greco's practice of retaining smaller autograph versions of his most popular compositions, no doubt so that he and members of his workshop could produce replicas at a later date. These include the Annunciation in the Fundación Colección Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid (Wethey no. 40; see also the catalogue of the 1982-3 exhibition cited above, under no. 32), the Saint Ildefonso in the National Gallery of Art, Washington (see Dr. William B. Jordan's entry in the catalogue of the 1982-3 exhibition, pp. 248-9, no. 43, and p. 205, colour pl. 56; also J. Brown and R. Mann, National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue: Spanish Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Nineteenth Centuries, Washington and Cambridge, 1990, pp. 43-7); and the very small Saint Francis in Ecstacy in the Fernández Araoz Collection, Madrid (Wethey no. 216), which is probably the 'S. franco Pequeño con un christo' recorded in the inventory of El Greco's studio drawn up immediately after his death in 1614 by his son Jorge Manuel. The same inventory records only one version of the present subject, described as 'S.Franco con el compañero de espaldas'. In a subsequent inventory, taken on the occasion of his son Jorge Manuel's marriage in 1621, the painting was still there and its size is given as 'bara y quarta de alto y tres quartas de ancho' (approximately 104 x 62.3cm.). Significantly, however, three new versions of similar size were also listed, indicating that the workshop continued to reproduce this popular subject on a small scale after El Greco's death.
None of the versions known until now has been convincingly identified as the missing 'small' version from the 1614 inventory. The present picture was last on the market in the mid-nineteenth century when it was acquired by the Conde de Adanero, a collector with a legendary eye for quality who also owned the prime version of another of El Greco's compositions of Saint Francis in Meditation (showing the saint alone, in profile to the left), now in the Torelló Collection, Barcelona (Wethey no. 223; no. 21 in the 1982-3 exhibition). Adanero's descendants were always secretive about their possessions, prohibiting access to the collection to such scholars as Wethey, who complained of this in his monograph (Wethey, op. cit., under nos. 242 and X-426). The present painting was last seen in public in 1902 and it was published by Manuel Cossío in his monograph of 1908 as 'de carácteres dudosos'. It is unlikely that any of the subsequent authors of books on El Greco had seen the picture; all follow Cossío's judgement, many of them repeating it verbatim. In fact, it would probably not have altered their judgement if they had, since any assessment of the painting's quality was made impossible not only by old discoloured varnish but also by extensive nineteenth-century overpainting, which completely obscured the vivacity of the brushwork (see Fig. 1). This was revealed by a recent cleaning, from which the picture has emerged in exceptionally good condition, almost all the overpainting proving completely gratuitous but probably having served to protect the paint surface and glazes from repeated cleanings. Dr. Jordan has examined the picture since cleaning and considers it the only autograph replica of the Ottawa canvas to have survived and superior to it as regards condition.
No member of the workshop or later copyist was able to capture the depth of feeling in the saint's expression or the structural and tonal unity of El Greco's two originals, nor did imitators succeed in emulating the scintillating brushwork and variety of touch of the artist's late style. His spontaneity of execution is particularly evident in the present picture in the confident sketchiness of passages such as the 'nimbus' of light behind the Saint's left hip, the area around his foot and the unpainted lower left edge of the canvas, which would seem to support the suggestion that the painting was executed as a personal ricordo rather than for sale. The inelegance of the signature suggests that it was added after El Greco's death by Jorge Manuel and that the painter originally left the cartellino blank. Other unsigned ricordi are known, such as the Thyssen Annunciation and the Fernández Araoz Saint Francis in Meditation, which is stylistically very similar to the present picture, and it is understandable that El Greco would have felt no need to sign a painting that was not intended for the market.