The art essay of the month
Saint Bonaventure’s Body Lying in State (1629) by Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664)
The Times When Zurbarán Painted
During the lifetime of the painter Francisco de Zurbarán, the Counter-Reformation was in full swing. The Council of Trent gave the Church clear guidelines regarding proper worship, the education of priests, and the proper way to communicate the faith in art. The council encouraged the burgeoning Baroque art movement, a style that grabbed the faithful’s attention, educated them in the faith, and most importantly worked against the “anti-Incarnational” aspects of Protestantism. Francisco eagerly adopted the style, and his work came to exemplify the Baroque use of tenebrism and realism, popularized by Caravaggio. His primary subject matter was the lives of the saints, particularly those of religious orders, as these were his primary patrons. One of the finest of his paintings is of the great Franciscan Saint Bonaventure.
The work, entitled Saint Bonaventure’s Body Lying in State, was painted in 1629. At this time, Zurbarán was in high demand among Catholic orders for his skill in large-scale portraits and narrative scenes from saints’ lives. This particular work, one of Zurbarán’s earliest commissions, was part of a cycle of four paintings commissioned by the Franciscan College of San Buenaventura in Seville, with various depictions of Saint Bonaventure near the end of his life.
The painting depicts Saint Bonaventure after his death, surrounded by his Fransciscan brothers, with Pope Gregory X and James I, King of Aragon. The first thing one will notice is the obvious use of high chiaroscuro, or the contrast of light and dark. Zurbarán favored this characteristic Baroque technique as it gave a sense of boldness to the figures and clarity to the idea he wished to express. The figure of Saint Bonaventure powerfully cuts across the square canvas, creating a clear diagonal line that continues through the pall bearers’ pole down to the left hand corner. In front of Saint Bonaventure are two friars, one slightly behind the pole and kneeling next to the saint’s arm, and two boys behind stand near his head. Behind his body, in a near-perpendicular line, stand more friars, a local bishop, the pope, and the king. Thus a spatial reality is formed, consisting of the foreground, middle ground, and background. The foreground figures and the background figures share much of the same mood: the gray robes and dark shadows of those in front mirror those of the friars above them, and the hints of blue in the habit of the friar on the left bleed into the blues worn by the king. In this way, the extra figures create a visual “sandwich” around the brighter and higher contrast of Saint Bonaventure’s body, elevating his importance as the central figure.
Zurbarán, in the manner of the great masters, is careful not to separate the spaces too much. He uses the casket rod as a visual anchor that draws the eye in front of the friar on the left, thereby “flattening” the space, creating the sense that Saint Bonaventure is occupying both the foreground and the middle ground at the same moment. This effect is further enhanced by the fact that he is presented in a higher perspective than the rest of the figures.
To prevent the feeling that the saint is falling backwards—the casket rod looks a bit like a lever—the painter “ties” him to the background figures by using the white miter of the bishop and the white worn by Pope Gregory. This creates a visual triangle of white.
The figure kneeling directly in front of the saint, as noted before, helps establish a foreground space, but also to frame the scene. The shadowed part of his robe blends in with the darkly clothed figures to his right, creating a “black area” pushing up toward Bonaventure’s head and miter. It also echoes the dark space behind the background figures. The light areas of his robe provide a curving “arrow sign,” echoed in the highlights of the orange drapery laid beneath the saint, pointing upwards to the background friars. The close proximity of those figures creates a curving rhythm that leads the eye to Pope Gregory’s outstretched hand, which pulls our attention to Gregory’s gaze toward the king. The darkness of the king’s outfit repeats in the friar in front of him, which gives a downward pull toward the rod. The lighted area of this friar’s robe echoes the lighted area of the other kneeling friar. Thus the movement is brought around to frame the whole.
The characters and emotion
Much more could be said by way of formal analysis of the painting and its structure, but one must also consider its mood and characters from, as it were, within. The lighting is cast in a single sharp direction, coming from the left, with almost no ambient lighting. This places all of the characters in a sharply contrasted setting, except, ironically enough, for the corpse of Saint Bonaventure. As the figures busy themselves in prayer and discussion of the great saint, with the flash of sharp light etching their faces and bodies in and out of focus, the figure of Saint Bonaventure looms large for the lack of dark shadows on his drapery. Only his face is clothed in shadow. One must wonder why Zurbarán painted the figure in such a different manner. One answer could be that it presents him in a sort of spiritual twilight, clothed abundantly in light, calm and still, awaiting the resurrection. Everyone else is still in the world of light and darkness, still in the spiritual fight. Zurbarán has created a meditation not only on the importance of the great saint lying in state, but also on what he reveals to his brothers about the aim of his life: sanctity.
An artist based in New York State who specializes in sacred art. Saint Bonaventure’s Body Lying in State (1629), Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664), Louvre, Paris, France. © Bridgeman Images.