(b. 1541, Candia, d. 1614, Toledo)
St Francis and Brother Leo Meditating on Death1600-02
Oil on canvas, 168,5 x 103,2 cm
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
El Greco's representations of St Francis were highly popular in Spain. El Greco no longer depicted the saint, as was previously common, at the moment of his stigmatization, that is, his miraculous reception of Christ's wounds, but in the process of musing over a skull. The founder of the Jesuit order, Ignatius of Loyola, had recommended the use of a skull in meditational practices in his Spiritual Exercises.
No one had captured the figure of the order's founder as described in the chronicles like El Greco, about forty versions of whose composition are still in existence even today. Two other factors probably also contributed to its extraordinary success: first, the great veneration enjoyed by St Francis in Spain - in Toledo alone, there were ten Franciscan religious institutions - and second, the recourse to modern media of dissemination.
This painting is one of the many representations of St Francis by El Greco in which the saint is shown with Brother Leo, his faithful companion, at the entrance to a cave on Mount Alverna, where towards the end of his life St Francis retired for fasting and prayer. There exist some forty versions of this successful composition, consisting of autograph works, workshop paintings, early variants and copies. Because El Greco knew from Italy how important reproduction prints were in popularizing new visual ideas, he had an engraving done of his work in 1606 under his supervision by his pupil Diego de Astor.
This version is an autograph work, it was intended for personal devotion, and El Greco has placed the skull virtually in the centre of the composition, and frontally, so that it acts as the focus for the viewer's meditation.