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St Francis Receiving The Stigmata

St Francis Receiving The Stigmata
El Greco

The National Gallery of Ireland

The first thing to strike you is the blast of blue. The colour is flat but not dull. It may be the sky, the mind, or even heaven. You just don't know.

But the most striking thing about seeing El Greco's St Francis Receiving The Stigmata in the National Gallery of Ireland is how modern it looks beside the creepy swaddled babies and the Virgin Kitsch surrounding it. And it's not just different to the images around it in the gallery- but also to everything else being painted in the 16th Century.

Where traditional painting, such as the Immaculate Conception hanging beside St Francis, placed even the most allegorical of images in a realistic landscape, with trees in the background and maybe a few winding rivers, El Greco's painting is a vision of an internal, spiritual event. He doesn't try to make it more like something you could see looking out of a window. Instead the image shows us how St. Francis must have felt, and ignores the irrelevant question of what a beardy man might look like the moment holes appeared in his hands. Note that Francis' stigmata doesn't bleed. These wounds are a revelation, a gift from God. And a reminder of what that gift represents- freedom from death- sits just under the saints elbow.

The skull was used as a reminder of mortality- the Memento Mori, in Latin. And it is the one solid, earthly thing in this otherwise otherworldly image.

What kind of a man produced this image? Well, El Greco was an outsider. Even his nickname- the Greek- reminds us that he worked far from his home and far from the centres of European Art for most of his life. Born a Catholic in Orthodox Crete and trained to paint the flat icons of the eastern world, he left and studied with Titian in Venice, before ending up in Spain. Having argued with both the King and the Church over payments for paintings, he relied on private commissions to stay alive. He was a man apart, and seeing the painting here in the gallery lets us see just how unlike his contemporaries he was.

One of those contemporaries described with bafflement a visit to the artist's studio. He came upon him sitting in darkness, but neither asleep nor painting. To a hack painter, unburdened by talent, it would never occur that he might have been just taking time to imagine. It reminds me of the story that Sam Goldwyn in Hollywood used to creep around the writers sheds on the MGM lot and shout at them to get back to work if he couldn't hear typing.

If El Greco was a man who lived inside his head, the figures he painted could not have existed anywhere else. St. Francis, as painted here, is not a physical presence. His face is too gaunt. His belt tied too tightly to have held a real body. His fingers bend in a way that would break yours or mine.

He's a figure who's left the lumpen real world behind. He has no body left- everything except his spirit has been burned away by the light

By the internal light, shining out of those huge exaggerated eyes, and by the light from above- the light of the Holy Spirit. It is above him, and surrounding him, pressing down on his back with its burden, but also reaching out to take his hand- to offer him support.

El Greco, sitting in his darkened room, understood how to evoke those feelings. Here, he uses them to try to let us into an extraordinary moment in another person's life. Through St. Francis, and accompanied by him, we are brought face to face with the mystery of God. And whether we now believe or not, the artist has left us that experience. What more could you ask for from a painting?


Simon McGarr
23rd August 2005

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