Domenikos Theotokopoulos or El Greco (1541 – 1614) is best known for paintings of long-limbed people shrouded in shadowy colors with faces full of pain. However, in “Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata” the person portrayed here is transcending his physical suffering by contemplating the suffering of Christ on the cross. St. Francis’ vision of the crucifixion is in the upper left hand corner of the painting.
El Greco painted at least two versions of this scene – one featuring a clean-shaven St. Francis and the other a bearded St. Francis. Both are similar and are thought to have been painted around the same time (ca 1595). The clean-shaven version is the best known. This, El Greco painted at least twice – one predominately blue and another predominately brown.
About Saint Francis
Saint Francis of Assisi (ca. 1182 – 1226) is one of Catholicism’s best loved saints because of his love for animals and for his devotion to helping the poor. According to legend, he was rich man who voluntarily gave up all of his wealth to become a penniless monk. He also is attributed to many miracles and to writing numerous songs of praise, including “Canticle of the Sun.”
Francis was the first Saint in Christian tradition to bear the marks of the stigmata, which mimic the wounds Jesus Christ is to have suffered during crucifixion. Bleeding, painful wounds appeared spontaneously on Francis’ palms, side and feet. Although there have been many recent debates about Romans nailing crucifixion victims through the wrists and not the palms, it was commonly believed in El Greco’s time that Christ was nailed through the palms. Stigmata is considered a great honor, but the actual wounds are considered very painful, noted a recent person to claim to have them, Saint Padre Pio (1887 – 1968). It is unknown how Pio received the stigmata.
Major Colors and Symbols
In El Greco’s later years, he preferred to use art to tell a story and set a mood rather than try to exactly copy from nature. Any version of “St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata” is predominately dark, with Francis’ eyes being the brightest spots. The bright spots are very small in comparison to the rest of the canvass. This symbolizes life’s troubles; they at first seem overwhelming, but if one looks hard enough, a bright spot can be found.
A sickly yellow skull features in the bottom of the clean-shaven Francis version. This symbol shows that Francis knew the triumph over death through his belief in an everlasting life through Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross. Whether or not one is an atheist is immaterial in interpreting the painting – belief in Christ was strong in El Greco’s painting and in the life of Saint Francis.
Look at the Eyes
At first glance, Saint Francis appears to be staring with rapt adoration at the crucifixion vision. But in all versions, the eyes are actually looking at the spot over the crucifixion. This is far more apparent in the bearded version than the clean-shaven version, where the eyes are nearly rolled back into Francis’ head.
This symbolizes that Francis could see beyond the suffering of this life and focuses past it to the afterlife. El Greco used a quietly subtle way to neatly portray Saint Francis as living like Christ – as always looking ahead to spending eternity in heaven. This is also a lesson for the paintings’ onlookers, which they, too, should look past life’s current problems and focus on the future.