Great Works: Saint Francis in Meditation (1635-9) by Francisco de Zurburán

National Gallery, London

There is much toing and froing in the 30th room of the National Gallery. Then, all of a sudden, you come upon this, by a youngish painter from Seville, quite different in atmosphere from its neighbours. It feels drawn in, close pent, and it bears down upon you, from a height. Yes, you have to tilt your head to look up into the opened mouth of the praying, kneeling St Francis.

The figure itself is huge, monumentally so, though it does not quite seem so at first glance because the saint is kneeling, sawn off at the knees you might say. My goodness, what a towering and haunting presence he would be, standing, with that pointed, Capuchin hood of his!

It is a solitary drama, an inward, prayerful wrestling, and the sense of much of what is happening here is bodied forth by the engulfing shadow, cut into by that dramatic shaft of light pouring in from the left, picking out the nose and, less distinctly, the beard, the moustache. There is almost nothing beyond the man himself, and there is often nothing other than these solitary presences, suspended in blackness, in Zurbarán's paintings. Note this habit he is wearing, and how threadbare it is. It is a patchwork of pieces, that is why it varies so in colour from brown to very light brown. See how wounded and out of sorts is the material at the elbow.

Interestingly, this threadbareness of the fabric of the habit rhymes very well with the condition of the frame of the painting, which is not in such a good state at all – you could begin to count the worm holes if you should so choose. What age is he, this saint? Quite young, it seems, though we cannot quite be sure. That is the intention, evidently, to make us unsure of almost everything but that mouth which hangs open, prayerfully, supplicating, endlessly, soundlessly muttering, as the saint clutches, at the height of his waist, a skull that is itself tilted up as if in interrogation.

The fact that the skull is upside down makes it quite difficult to read it as a skull – it could be a double-handled ceramic pitcher, you half-think, until you have scrutinised it a little more closely. And when that happens, you experience a slight frisson of alarm. These are the eye sockets of a dead man that are staring directly into the eyes of the saint, and reminding him perhaps that the single most important matter upon which he needs to be concentrating is that sudden great leap from life to death. Everything between is the transient folly of the world.

About the artist: Francisco de Zurburán (1598-1664)

Unlike his younger contemporary Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Franciso de Zurburán was a painter of the darkness of the human soul. Silent presences wrestle in near empty, yawning spaces. Later in life, the fashion for Zurburán's grave depictions of spiritual passion passed away, to be replaced by a taste for Murillo, so saccharine, sweet and lightsomely cheerful by comparison.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum