From pp 19-23 of Joy Lasts –on the spiritual in art, by Sister Wendy Beckett. Published by Getty Publications 2006
Two splendid paintings depict precisely this deeply spiritual theme of visions. A vision or ecstasy dares to reveal a soul in most intimate union with God: there could hardly be a more serious, more affecting image for anyone who also yearns to live in that sacred union. In ‘The Vision of Saint Bruno’ Mola depicted the founder of the Carthusians, an order of men who essentially live in solitude, meeting only in church. The saint’s habit – white, ample – extends over the ground, as if to symbolize for us the surrender of his heart. He glimmers in the dusk, an aging hermit lost in prayer. His face is half averted, but that tremendous lifted arm tells us that he sees. What he sees Mola does not venture to depict.
The one element I find off-putting is the cherubs’ heads bobbing like balloons above him, but they are perhaps more apt for their very ineptitude: it is impossible to depict in physical terms what has overthrown Bruno and irradiated his prone body. The very trees seem to bow to an unseen presence. And yet, while I see all the ingredients of ecstasy here, I miss the thing itself. What excites me most is that expanse of gleaming cloth, with its secrets and spaces. It speaks to me more profoundly than Bruno does.
Murillo’s ‘Vision of Saint Francis of Paola’ is a very different – and, for me, more successful – presentation of religious ecstasy. Murillo, of course, is a hit-and-miss artist. His misses, when he lapses into sentimentality – all those adorable little Baby Jesus and little Saint John pictures – are never more than charming. They are always this, at least, because Murillo is such a great technician: no artist has excelled him in the tactility of his textures. But when he succeeds, he strikes straight to the heart, and this work seems to me one of his great hits. He has almost wantonly foregone his chief strength, his ability to make us feel substances: in the supernal glow seeming to emanate from the word ‘Charitas,’ it is not easy to respond to the great swathes of coarse brown in which the saint is clad, and we can barely make out, in the distance, an enactment of one of the saint’s miracles.
All our attention is drawn with inescapable power to that pleading face, the profundity of the offering that Francis makes of himself to God. The five small angels (dear little creatures, like Murillo’s children) are insignificant. Francis does not see them; he is looking in adoration at his Lord. I find that I cannot regard this picture without tears. I do not actually cry, but my eyes sting. And this brings me a great step nearer to what I want to say about El Greco’s ‘Christ on the Cross.’