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
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
    Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

    Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

    They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
    The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

    20 best days out for the summer holidays

    From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
    Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

    All the wood’s a stage

    Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
    Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

    Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

    Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
    Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

    Self-preservation society

    Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
    Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

    Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

    We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor