Fundación Casa Ducal de Medinaceli

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San Francisco de Asís

Also housed in the Hospital Tavera is this painting of Saint Francis of Assisi, possibly commissioned around 1600 by the rector Don Pedro Salazar de Mendoza (1549-1629), who kept a painting of the saint in his "office" in the hospital, though it is not mentioned among the hospital paintings in an inventory until as late as 1762.

Nevertheless, not all historians agree with this hypothesis and some consider it to have been executed by El Greco's studio between 1620 and 1625. Indeed, the artist's son Jorge Manuel Theotocópuli, who inherited his workshop, even spent a three-year period (1622-1625) living at the Hospital Tavera maintained almost entirely by the institution, and the painting may have been a gift as compensation in kind; this possibility does not contradict the first hypothesis, as it could have been incorporated into the hospital rector's collection after the Cretan's death and shortly after that of the administrator; indeed, in 1614, when El Greco died, as many nine versions of the theme of St Francis were inventoried at his studio.

A third, albeit less plausible, hypothesis is that the painting may have been part of the second commission El Greco received from Salazar de Mendoza in 1608 to decorate his three altarpieces and did not manage to complete on account of his old age and death.

Saint Francis is depicted full length and in profile as a penitent on Mount Alvernia in the Casentino in Tuscany, set against a rock with a cave and an ivy plant[], facing a crucifix and skull [] and meditating on redemption and death. It is one of the versions of this specific iconography and composition of which at least ten have been catalogued; they are held to be based on the version in the Fine Arts Museum de San Francisco (USA), which is dated before the end of the century and much larger in size (147 x 105 cm).

The saint wears a Franciscan habit, the appropriateness of which was criticised openly by the Sevillian theoretician of iconography, Velázquez's father-in-law Francisco Pacheco, for its serge-like texture; he kneels, leaning towards the crucifix, and his hands, crossed on his chest, show the wounds of the Stigmatisation of 1224.  Saint Francis founded his order in 1221 for followers of the Rule and the Third Order for laymen, and its importance gradually increased during the 15th century.

This composition appears to have been devised in the last decade of the 16th century at a later date than the half-length image that was used even more widely by El Greco and his workshop. El Greco cultivated yet another image of St Francis--meditating on death and holding a skull in the company of Brother Leo--which became even more widely disseminated after a print was made of it by Diego de Astor in 1606.

The hypothesis that these paintings were based on the interpretations of the convicted archbishop of Toledo, Bartolomé Carranza de Miranda, on the crucifiction, taking the crucifix to be a symbol of extreme penitence for worldly sins and an example of repentance for Christians, appears to be ungrounded. While meditation before the crucifix was considered essential at the Hospital de San Juan Bautista, each bed having a cross above it, and dying patients were moved to another room where a crucifix was placed before their eyes until they passed away, such use was commonplace in Toledan society of the day; the cross and skull [] that feature in the work allude not only to this final moment but to any act of prayer.

The painting would appear to represent the model for prayer and ascetic life to be pursued both in and outside the hospital, as proven by the extremely widespread practice of being buried in the Franciscan habit.

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Fernando Marías