Pieter van Mol
St. Francis in ecstasy
oil on canvas
17th century (first half)
Uffizi Galleries, Palazzo Pitti, Palatine Gallery and Royal Apartments, Inv. Palatina 1912 n. 93
"And let the brothers not say: “This is another Rule”, because this is a reminder, an admonition, an exhortation, and my testament, which I, little Brother Francis, am delivering to all of you, my blessed brothers[..]”
[from The Testament of St Francis of Assisi 1226]
After the the Council of Trent, the depiction of St Francis underwent a considerable change, in line with the precepts of the iconography of the Counter Reformation. In the fight against Protestant heresy, the Catholic Church assigned to the Virgin and the Saints the role of mediators between the faithful and God, and when confirming the legitimacy of the cult of the sacred images, it called for an art that would illustrate the doctrinal principles clearly and simply, or arouse participatory emotions and sentiments of compassion and devotion in the beholders. St Francis, who had just become akin to Christ, having received the marks of the Redeemer’s martyrdom, was one of the Saints that could best fulfill this function, and it is in this perspective that he was mainly portrayed in solitary contemplation or ascetic abandon in the Baroque period. At the same time, the emergence of new Franciscan families, notably including the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, who professed a return to poverty and to their founder’s lifestyle, characterized by solitude and penance, focused the attention on representing the descriptive details of the Poor Little Man of Assisi that accentuated these aspects, such as his worn, patched habit.
This painting depicts St Francis in the moment of ecstasy immediately after he received the stigmata on the mountain of La Verna, evoked by the “raw stone” in the background. The Saint is turning his gaze towards the sky, from which the divine light that illuminates his figure shines down. His hands clasped on his chest show the marks that made him “akin to Christ” that September night in 1224.
Here, his usual attributes, the humble habit, with patches applied in various places and the rough cord worn as a belt around his waist, are joined by the rosary beads, the devotional prayer introduced into the Franciscan order after 1472, following the miraculous apparition of the Virgin to a novice.
Another two objects have been laid on the rock: the skull, attribute of the hermit saints which, became popular in the portrayals of Francis as a symbol of meditation on the vanitas after the Council of Trent, the Crucifix, which played a key role in his experience of faith and a whip, a reference to his life of penance. His fellow monk further back on the right, half-hidden in the darkness that dominates the background, is Brother Leo, Francis’ companion and confessor in the last years of his life, who often appears with the Saint in the episode of the stigmata. He is raising his right hand to his face, as if to shield his gaze from the divine light shining on Francis, highlighting his amazement at the miraculous event he is witnessing.
Having belonged to the collections of Ferdinando de' Medici, Grand Prince of Tuscany, and been cited in the Medici inventories as The ecstasy of St Francis on La Verna, attributed to Rubens, for a long time, critics considered the work as a cornerstone of Franciscan iconography painted by the Flemish artist. The discovery of the signature on the bottom right of the work, following a restoration, enabled the painting to be rightly attributed to Pieter van Mol, painter from Antwerp who worked at the court of Paris from 1613 until his death and was mainly known for his paintings of historical, or religious subjects.