Hanging in a gallery of the Ackland Art Museum at UNC Chapel Hill is a painting that might have shared the limelight in the blockbuster exhibition at Duke University's Nasher Museum of Art, considering a similar picture by the same artist is already there.
How the two paintings fit together but remain apart is a bit of an art history puzzle.
Both works portray St. Francis receiving the stigmata, and both were painted by Vincente Carducho, an artist of Italian origin. Carducho eventually inherited his brother Bartolome's place as court painter to Philip III, whose 17th-century reign provides the time frame for the exhibition.
The Ackland's painting depicts a beautifully rendered St. Francis kneeling before his cave in the Appenines, where he retreated in the years before his death in 1226. St. Francis looks up to the sky, where clouds have parted and a shining light reveals his distant vision of a crucified man held aloft by a pink-winged seraphim. One of his companion-biographers, most probably Brother Leo, partakes of the vision while holding a book.
The Carducho at the Nasher is part of “El Greco to Velazquez: Art During the Reign of Philip III.” That work, “The Stigmatization of St. Francis,” was borrowed from the Hospital de la V.O.T. de San Francisco in Madrid. The iconography is unexpected, and radical.
In the center of the canvas, the image of the crucified Christ held aloft by a pink-winged seraphim is met by a levitating St. Francis, who gazes rapturously into the eyes of Christ. The monk below, seen from more of a distance than in the Ackland painting, has tossed his book upward and holds his hands in the air from the shock of the event.
The painting has a brushier, slightly unfinished execution, which seems to give more immediacy to the vision and even suggests the movement of the seraphim's fluttering wings.
The Nasher's Sarah Schroth, who curated the exhibition, thinks this depiction of St. Francis aloft is directly related to St. Teresa of Avila's descriptions of her visionary experiences, which included sensations of soaring upward. Also found in this image, which Schroth characterizes as unorthodox, is the Counter-Reformation concept of the possibility of a personal, unmediated relationship with God.
Schroth said she thinks the Ackland painting, dated 1610-1630, was painted later than the Philip III period (1598-1621), which is why she did not include it in the Nasher show.
When “El Greco to Velazquez” leaves the area Nov. 9, there will still be something of the era at the Ackland. Before the show closes, there's a rewarding comparison to be made between the two Carduchos while they are in close proximity to one another.