(b. 1563, Pisa, d. 1639, London)
St Francis Supported by an Angelc. 1603
Oil on canvas, 126 x 98 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid
This devotional image of St Francis, dressed in a Capuchin habit, has been associated with Gentileschi's deposition in the libel suit brought by Giovanni Baglione in 1603 against four rival artists, including Gentileschi and Caravaggio. Gentileschi testified that Caravaggio had borrowed from him a Capuchin habit and pair of wings, which quite plausibly can be identified with the costumes in this picture. In the decades immediately following the Council of Trent (1545-63), an increased emphasis was placed on the depiction of the mystical experiences of saints rather than more traditional narrative sequences from their lives.
Here St Francis, who has collapsed in an ecstatic swoon after receiving the stigmata, is consoled by his guardian angel. The composition recalls scenes of the Saviour comforted by an angel on the Mount of Olives, transforming St Francis into an analogue of Christ. Such meditational images were meant to inspire the viewer to contemplate his own death and rebirth through Christian devotion. Gentileschi treated the theme a number of times, including a version (Galleria d'Arte Antica di Palazzo Barberini, Rome) which was installed in the oratory of San Girolamo della Carità around 1611. This latter work is more Caravaggesque in its handling of light and shade and in its spatial complexity, suggesting that it was painted slightly after the Prado version (it was most likely moved to the oratory in 1611 from another venue). In both pictures the nearly full-length figures are pushed towards the picture plane, but in the Barberini version the saint's body falls forward and the angel swivels in space, creating a more dramatic and emotionally packed image. The palette, too, has been altered from the warm reds and golds of the angel's tunic in the Prado picture to a more lyrical combination of pink, rose and white.