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"Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy" by Caravaggio on loan to Detroit Institute of Arts
Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, ca. 1595–96; oil on canvas. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut. The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund.
DETROIT, MICH.- Visitors to the Detroit Institute of Arts will be treated to the rare opportunity to see an early masterpiece by Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio) on loan from the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, from Oct. 10 to Jan. 13. Caravaggio’s Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy will be displayed next to the DIA’s own Caravaggio painting, Martha and Mary Magdalene, also considered one of his finest masterpieces. These two 16th-century paintings demonstrate Caravaggio’s proficient rendering of form and his deep spiritual and emotional sense of the Christian faith.

“Caravaggio influenced many painters from other European countries who came to Rome to learn the master’s dramatic and realistic style,” said Salvador Salort-Pons, DIA executive director, Collection Strategies and Information. “Visitors will be able to explore two of the best Caravaggios in America side by side in the same gallery displaying paintings by his most celebrated followers, including Artemisia and Orazio Gentileschi, Bartolomeo Manfredi, Valentin de Boulogne, Dirck van Baburen and Matthias Stomer, among many others.”

Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy is probably the first of all the religious scenes that Caravaggio painted, a genre for which he is famous. The Life of Saint Francis, written in 1262 by Saint Bonaventure, inspired this painting. Bonaventure recounts that Saint Francis, in the company of Brother Leon, had gone to pray at the Mount La Verna, near Florence. While praying, Francis had a vision of a crucified seraph (a winged celestial being) that imprinted the stigmata—five wounds inflicted on Christ during the crucifixion—onto Saint Francis’ body.

Breaking with the tradition of representing the miracle of Saint Francis’ stigmata, Caravaggio depicts the moment after the supernatural event. After receiving the wounds, Francis lies on the ground in ecstasy, held by an angel who comforts him. Caravaggio is more interested in representing the spiritual translation of the miracle than a literal image of it. On the lower left of the canvas, Brother Leon is seen in the darkness, totally unaware of the miraculous moment. Like in many of his religious paintings, Caravaggio focuses on the internal and spiritual nature of the Christian faith.

The painting is one of the few times, if not the only time, that Caravaggio represents a nightscape, which is very difficult to paint, showing his celebrated command of the use of light. In the dark background sky are yellow and orange strips that show the sky’s last gleams as manifestations of divine power. In the foreground. the light comes from above and to the left, bathing the two figures with a warm glow that underscores Francis’ ecstatic peacefulness and the loving gesture of the angel.

While Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy is one of his first religious paintings, the DIA’s Martha and Mary Magdalene is one of his first known religious works dramatically staged in an interior. The paintings will be shown side by side, allowing the viewer to compare the skillful rendering and deep spiritual emotion of two of Caravaggio’s early masterpieces

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