In the middle ages, the Church was in need of rebuilding. At the height of her need, St. Francis aspired to act as God’s instrument of repair. His spiritual traits of obedience and self-denial mirror the early saints at the birth of the Church. He gave up his inherited privilege and wealth in exchange for the Stigmata, the wounds of Christ which he bore in his hands, feet, and side. The imitation of Christ was true wealth to him, similar to the early saints, many of whom suffered for Christ. St. Francis labored to establish the Franciscan order, which was much like the first community of Apostles in performing works of mercy, practicing total self denial, and poverty down to the simple garments they wore. Beginning with the small Umbrian church of San Damiano, he rebuilt Christ’s Church, and his efforts would continue to perpetuate devotion throughout the Protestant Reformation into the 17th century, and to the present day. In recognition of his prolific works, St. Francis was canonized shortly after his death in 1226 on October 4, now celebrated as his feast day.
Four centuries later, the Franciscan order had spread across Europe and had grown to be one of the largest religious orders on the continent. Their ministry was alive and thriving in the Netherlands by the time the Protestant Reformation had begun to produce cultural upheaval, the same time in which Peter Paul Rubens painted the saint’s portrait. Their influence in fostering the devotion of his countrymen may have inspired Rubens’ interest in the saint, who was a featured subject in several of his works. Much like St. Francis himself, Rubens was born into a wealthy family and enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle in his youth. He established his career as an ambassador for Spain and England, making important connections across Europe and gaining world-wide recognition for his masterly accomplishments.
Contemporary artists of Rubens include Vermeer, Frans Hals, and Rembrandt, whose pieces were usually subtle in color palette, focusing on technical perfection and hyper-realism. In contrast, Rubens tended to utilize the full range of the color palette, with highly exaggerated figures resembling the curves and muscularity of the earlier Italian painters Titian and Tintoretto. He also tended towards higher complexity and dynamism in his compositions, using as many colors and figures as possible.In the portrait of St. Francis, Rubens maintained a subdued blue-gray palette with a blank background, and with the isolated figure of his beloved St. Francis wearing a calm, almost wearied expression. The greatest point of contrast is the ivory crucifix lovingly folded in the wounded hands of the saint, over which he bends his ear as if to listen to the soft whispers of the sacrificial Christ. The piece so stripped of any ornamentation embodies the central theme that so captivated Rubens and St. Francis: the loving, close relationship that the Divine One seeks out in every human person. Nothing distracts from the close embrace of the mortal and the Immortal, of man and God.