El Greco’s Saint Francis and Brother Leo in Meditation is one of the artist’s greatest and most celebrated compositions, known in several versions and copies. With its dazzling and spontaneous brushwork and richly-worked paint surface, the present canvas is among the finest and best preserved examples of the subject, a mature work by this seminal Spanish painter of a sort rarely found in today’s market.
El Greco was born around 1541 in Crete, then a Venetian territory. After training there as an icon painter in the Byzantine tradition, he moved to Venice, where he became a disciple of Titian and an avid student of Veronese, Jacopo Bassano and especially the Mannerist art of Tintoretto, whose expressive treatment of subjects was to have a lasting impact. Rejecting the archaic conventions of Byzantine art, El Greco quickly mastered key aspects of Venetian Renaissance painting, including the Venetian predilection for glowing colour and bravura brushwork. After a sojourn in Rome, El Greco travelled to Spain, settling in Toledo in 1577. There he created some of his greatest visionary masterpieces, such as the celebrated View of Toledo (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art), and the monumental Burial of Count Orgaz, still preserved in Santo Tomé, the church in Toledo for which it was originally commissioned.
Like these paintings, Saint Francis and Brother Leo in Meditation has the arresting power of a hallucinatory vision, in which elements inspired by Italian Mannerist art - elongated figures, irrational space, flashing, supernatural light and surreal colour - powerfully evoke the spiritual realm. Although El Greco died in 1614 - after Caravaggio had ushered in the new naturalism of the early Baroque – his art is fundamentally tied to the precepts of Mannerism, with its reliance on the artist’s imagination rather than the world of visible reality. It was El Greco’s antinaturalistic palette and the emotionally resonant distortions of his figures that so profoundly influenced modernist masters such as Manet (fig.1), Delacroix, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso and Schiele (fig.2), all of whom copied or quoted El Greco’s works in an effort to understand his uniquely expressive power.
The profound humanity of St. Francis – a rich merchant’s son who renounced worldly possessions and founded a Catholic order that venerated poverty and believed that Nature itself was the mirror of God – held a particular appeal in the age of the Counter-Reformation, and by the time El Greco settled in Toledo, the city had no fewer than seven Franciscan convents and three friaries, the most important of which was near the artist’s house. He displayed his affinity for the saint in at least ten distinct compositions, in which he evolved a new iconography in accordance with the dictates of the Council of Trent. Francisco Pacheco, the distinguished painter and influential art theorist, who visited El Greco at his home in 1611, called him the greatest interpreter of Saint Francis of his time, a view that has never been disputed.
In the present painting, El Greco refrains from depicting the saint at the moment of his stigmatisation, as he is most often portrayed. Instead, he shows Saint Francis with his faithful companion, Brother Leo, at the entrance to a cave on Mount La Verna, where, towards the end of his life, he retired for fasting and prayer. Intended to serve a devotional function to stimulate prayer and pious reflection, this painting reveals Saint Francis musing over a skull, with Brother Leo kneeling in prayer by his side; it is of a type understandably, but misleadingly, known as the ‘Hamlet’ Saint Francis, since Shakespeare’s play, written in 1598-1602, was almost exactly contemporaneous. The stark simplicity of the composition and restrained palette emphasize the saint’s asceticism and humility, while the placement of the skull in the centre of the foreground provides a focus for the viewer’s own spiritual devotions.
Saint Francis and Brother Leo in Meditation is El Greco’s most celebrated depiction of the saint. Popularised in part by a reproductive print which El Greco commissioned in 1606, the composition is known in various versions, many of which were executed wholly or in part by studio assistants, or later imitators. The slightly larger composition of this popular subject in the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (fig. 3; 168.5 x 103 cm.) is generally considered to be the prime version and dated to the early 1600s. Prior to the 1996 London sale, the present picture had last been on the market in the mid-nineteenth century, and remained largely hidden from public view. Although some scholars suggested studio participation in its creation shortly before the 1996 sale, the picture was cleaned of much nineteenth century overpaint, and subsequently endorsed by Dr. William B. Jordan as the only autograph replica of the Ottawa canvas to have survived.
The picture was acquired in the mid-nineteenth century by the Conde de Adanero, a Spanish 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 a private collection, Barcelona.