Religious Art: ‘Saint Francis Standing in Ecstasy’

Francisco Zurburan (1598-1664), ‘Saint Francis Standing in Ecstasy’, c. 1640, oil on canvas; Museo Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona.

A few years ago another blogger started (but never continued) a series of posts on Religious Art.  As someone with an uninformed, amateur interest in Art I thought that it might be interesting to give it another go.  The first painting I have selected, though feel free to make suggestions for future posts, is a painting by Zurbaran entitled ‘Saint Francis Standing in Ecstasy’.

I saw this recently at an exhibition in London called ‘The Sacred made Real’ which I have previously discussed elsewhere.  This painting was the stand-out item for me.  At nearly two metres tall Saint Francis dominates the room with eyes that drive your focus upward, and yet the bodily stasis (Saint Francis is dead here) exhibited by Zurburan grounds the observer back in mortality.

Further, as someone who assumes ecstasy to be mobile, the rigidity of this body is unsettling.

It is this conflicted dynamic that interests me; this push toward God counter-acted against a pull toward death and sin.  This ecstatic outward movement contained by a body unable to express it.  This painting feels like prayer


  1. Glad to see this return.

    I agree that this painting is marvellous.

  2. Aaron R. says:

    Well, we’ll see how long it lasts. At the very least consider it an honour to have inspired two of my posts since being a perma at BCC. It is all part of my attempt to catch up with the discussions that have already happened here.

  3. I’d be interested in the ecstasy of Joseph Smith. Popular images of the first vision imagine Joseph shielding his eyes from the brightness as he kneels. His accounts, however, suggest that he may have been comatose.

  4. Aaron R. says:

    Interesting reference. I think mostly I, like other Mormons I know, always assumed that he became comatose after the experience (like Moses), but it is completely reasonable to assume that the experience was similar to Alma the Younger’s. I recall Truman Madsen contrasting JS with the Mystical tradition and sensed that he was uncomfortable with the idea that JS was comatose during the experience.

    I wonder where my assumption regarding ecstasy being mobile comes from, perhaps I watched too much football as a child.

  5. B.Russ says:

    Any comments I try to make would betray my ignorance in art.

    But if you’re looking for suggestions, I love me some Caravaggio.

  6. Buendia says:

    This is a beautiful piece–I wish I had a chance to see it in person.

    In my opinion, the title of the piece is perfect. Although we often use the word “ecstasy” to mean “intense delight” or something along those lines, it is often used in a religious sense to refer to a trance-like state of communion with a higher power. This meaning also brings in a wonderful self-contained conflict, as “ecstatic” is literally “beyond/outside of stasis”, and yet often refers to stillness.

    Beyond the technical skill demonstrated in the painting–and that alone is tremendous–I find the beauty of the painting to be in this conflict between movement and stasis, mortal and immortal, the holy and the profane. What is prayer if not a combination of bodily stillness and (hopefully) spiritual transformation, the limitation of the corporeal self in an effort to lift the spiritual self? Fasting, likewise, is the combination of physical subjugation and spiritual liberation. This great change of heart, this freeing of the heart unto God, is so often found through “prayer and supplication with thanksgiving” in every thing, yielding “the peace of God, which passeth all understanding”. Personal winds and earthquakes and fires give way to the still small voice of the Spirit. Here is the body of Saint Francis, utterly still and empty, yet echoing a passionate and consuming commitment to the Lord.

    The figure of Saint Francis post-death is also great, as it allows us to question the role of the body in spiritual progression. It reminds me of a shell left behind as an animal grows and moves on to another, better-fitting shell. It was a conduit, a fitting tool for a moment in time. It is interesting that his hands and feet are not shown–there is no stigmata here, no comparison to Christ. The only part of his body that is visible is his head, which is looking upward, “relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save”.

    Thanks for sharing this moving piece (pun intended).

  7. Sharon LDS in flooded Tenn says:

    When an epithany occurs, one is so filled inside, so focused on the message or experience in one’s heart and mind and spirit, you are dissolved inwardly, not very tuned into anything physical or outside your being.
    It literally lifts, and almost makes invisible anything on the ‘outside’ of yourself.
    Your heart is filled to bursting with awe and unconditional love, as well as just having received an undeniable testimony about God’s connection with you and having communicated something TO you as a child of Him.
    There is NOTHING profane about this experience, for anyone. God is No respector of persons and all MAY who WILL…..if they are willing, and will RECEIVE !
    A very hard thing to actually communicate in art.
    What a great thought that we ALL can have this experience and become LIVING ART that can then place us in a similar stance likeunto this great depiction….in oil on canvas !
    Love to All.

  8. Mommie Dearest says:

    Last fall I has about an hour to spend at the Milwaukee Art Museum (which is a terrific little museum, and deserves a whole lot more than an hour) and the only painting I made notes on was a larger than life size full length portrait by Zurburan, “St. Francis of Assisi In His Tomb” I need to google-image it up and remind myself why it stopped me in my run through the museum. At first I thought it was by Velasquez (who is the King of all painters imho) but this fellow was a contemporary of Velasquez, I think. Or a little after. There’s no question that he was influenced by Velasquez, perhaps he was even his student at some point. I’d babble on some more but I have to go take a test. Maybe later.

  9. Sharon, hope you’re doing OK down there. Saw what happened to the Opry… wow. Keep us posted.

  10. Yes please! More of posts like this.

  11. I am all text thumbs. Please ignore my spare “of.”

  12. Correction time. I wiki’d Velasquez and Zurburan and found out that they were very close in age. Zurbaran lived from 1598-1664, and Velasquez 1599-1660. I doubt that either was the student of the other. Zurbaran had a far less illustrious career, and thus, a puny wiki article compared to Velasquez’, which is bursting with information and links. Because Z’s style was comparatively harsh, he fell into disfavor and suffered from poverty. According to my puny research. Later in life he moved to Madrid where Velasquez hired him in some capacity. I am interested to find out more about him, and it doesn’t look like it will be easy.
    The painting I saw in the Milwaukee Museum caught my eye because the face of the figure is completely in shadow, yet in the original, you can easily read the expression on it. It’s hard to see it in reproductions. I took notes on it because it was such an eyeful and I checked the unfamiliar name and wondered “Who is that!?” The MMA has made images of it available online.
    Thanks for spurring me to make a little more progress in my haphazard research.

    Is the National Gallery Show in London closed? That looks wonderful.

    Also, more of this kind of post would be lovely, if you please.

  13. Cynthia L. says:

    Aaron, this is fantastic. Your analysis of the upward/downward contrast wouldn’t have occurred to me, but now that you point it out, it really makes me appreciate this piece. Thanks for sharing this.

  14. Aaron, you motivated me to pull out a dusty old art history book and look up Zurburon. I love the period of Spanish realism and austerity these St Francis paintings are a part of- and your description is incredibly poetic.

  15. Aaron R. says:

    Thanks all for your comments.

    Buendia your analysis is v. insightful and has given me other ideas to consider. I am fairly ignorant of the religious connotations associated with ecstasy and therefore appreciated your comments a great deal.

    Sharon thank you for your comment and like Steve I hope your ok.

    Mommie Dearest, Velazquez is a master also and they also had some of his work at this exhibition which has sadly closed.

    Cynthia, I think seeing the painting in real life enables you to sense and feel that movement. This tiny image does not do it justice.

    Tracy M, I agree that this time of spanish realism and its powerfully religious content are v. affecting.

  16. Gavin P says:

    St. Francis looks like he just saw the mothership but the tractor beam hasn’t started yet.

    But I love Zurburan. I feel that he is so underrated and under-appreciated. Thanks for bringing some art to my Thursday morning.

  17. Sharon LDS in flooded Tenn says:

    There are times when it really pays to have things in your head straight as to what is really important. Facing leaving all behind in an evacuation makes it way too late to “make sure oil is in your lamp”. I saw a miracle before my eyes.
    I will share a small portion, since you all wanted to know.
    Yes, we are safe, only outside damage, an much warned as to preparing NOW for what will come NEXT, whatever that may be. I had only one pack ready to grab as the waters swirrled up rapidly around my home. We were the 1st on the channel 2 news and they literally carried DH to the rescue truck as water rose a foot every hour. I had ignored the whisperings of the spirit to get genealogy / computer / writings (years of poems, stories, book galley) in a small form easy to ‘take with quickly’. So, as we drove away leaving two cars almost submerged and soaking wet I knew I’d better listen and do better if I had another chance.
    However, two HP from our ward, as they jumped into the water from the porch left our house sealed by the Priesthood prayer/blessing asking God to stay the water from going inside the house. I honestly could not see how that could be watching most all of Nashville going under.
    I just had to “LET GO AND LET GOD”….as I was in shock and awe.
    Tah Dah.
    NO water came inside…..all damage outside, huge crators where driveway used to be, cars worked, funny collection of whatever floated in and clung to our fence or bushes.
    Thank you for your mercy dearest Heavenly Father.
    I have a second chance to ‘get ready’ the most important records and family treasures.
    No one in our ward sustained significant damage inside, only outside, only one basement flooded. Trees down, driveways gone, but hey, more miracles…blessings !
    Everyone…..PLEEZE…take my advice ?
    Get ready NOW. Pack undies, meds, few precious pics, CD’s of your backups, family group sheets, scriptures, even get the pets ready with a carrier, few cans of food, harness & leash….flashlite,
    YOu already know what to do and how to do it.
    Thanks again for caring and asking. I LOVE this site.
    I send to you all………my brothers and sisters…..
    Much love.

  18. Sharon LDS in flooded Tenn says:

    Forgot, to tell…water came up to 1 inch from front door jamb. Whoa. Angels must have huffed and puffed and blew it all another direction as it was directly headed towards that porch / door and rose another 2 feet.
    SMILE !

  19. Aaron, I am curious about why you state this is Saint Francis already dead. I am familiar with the story of when they opened his tomb, (but not specifically with this history of this painting) but did Zurburon paint this with that in mind, do we know?

  20. Aaron R. says:

    Tracy, yes Zurbaran had that story in mind when he painted this scene, or according to the notes that I had from the National Gallery.

%d bloggers like this: