Item of the Month: Revealing Saint Francis

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By | From the Collections

Taking inspiration from the recent papal election, we’ve decided to turn our attention to a work from the Wellcome Library that depicts not one, but two, Saints Francis.

Pope Francis I has taken inspiration for his name from St Francis of Assisi – founder of the Franciscan movement, and noted for his frugality and humble lifestyle. The Wellcome Library holds a number of works which depict St Francis, but we’ve decided to focus on this 17th century painting, depicting St Francis, dressed in the habit of the order he founded and with the marks of stigmata mirroring the crucifix he holds in the same hand:

V0017338 Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Francis de Paul, and Saint

Saint Francis of Assisi (Wellcome Library no. 44784i)

But this image of St Francis of Assisi is only seen when looking at the painting from the left hand side. If one looks at it from the right, a different image emerges:

V0017337 Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Francis de Paul, and Saint

Saint Francis of Paola (Wellcome Library no. 44784i)

This figure, wearing a cowl and holding a paper lettered CHARITAS can be identified as another St Francis – St Francis of Paola (St Francis of Paul). Not as well-remembered as St Francis of Assisi, but St Francis of Paolo followed in the path of his namesake, being taught by Franciscans, living a life of frugality and humility and founding the Hermits of Saint Francis of Assisi. He was also renowned in his lifetime as a thaumaturge or miracle worker, active both in Italy and in France.

As those are the images observable from left and right, it’s perhaps not too surprising that if one looks straight on at the painting, a third different figure is revealed:

V0017336 SS. Francis of Assisi and Francis de Paul, with St Peter (?)

Saint Peter (Wellcome Library no. 44784i)

Whilst the first two representations suggest this might be a third Saint Francis, the two tear drops falling from the figure’s right eye – being a feature of many visual depictions of Saint Peter (who, according to the Gospels, burst into tears after denying Christ for the third time) – suggest that it is he, rather than another Saint Francis that is depicted here.

As for exact details on the painting, its baroque style suggests it originated in the seventeenth-century, and is probably from the region of Naples – where St Francis of Paola was especially venerated – or from Spain.

The key to how this painting works is in its physical shape. The two side paintings are painted on vertical slats at right angles to the backboard, so that the three different images are formed when the viewer stands to the left of the painting, the right of the painting and straight on. Here’s an attempt to replicate the effects of the painting, constructed for a feature in New Scientist.


This style of artwork is known as an anamorphic painting (sometimes a ‘turning’ painting) and is probably most familiar to us from one of the most famous works from the National Gallery in London, The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein:


Hans Holbein, The Ambassadors (1533). Image attribution: Wikimedia Commons

Many a visitor to the National Gallery has stood at the right edge of this painting, so that the anamorphic skull at the bottom of the painting comes into focus:


Anamorphic Skull. Image attribution: Wikimedia Commons

What’s interesting about the painting of the three saints when compared to The Ambassadors, is that as one understandable image is altered by the viewer’s movement, the image does not recede into purely into formlessness – as the skull in The Ambassadors does – but into another understandable image (of a saint).

Even if the term may be unfamiliar, anamorphic images are fairly  familiar to modern eyes, whether they’re viewed as street art or as advertising in sport.  However, to frame the works above, the work of historian Stuart Clark helps situate anamorphic paintings in the wider visual culture of the Early Modern period.  Clarke’s Vanities of the Eye: Vision in Early Modern European Culture (OUP, 2007), places anamorphic art into wider debates concerning wonder, astonishment and objectivity in this period.

Clark also helps us to consider if anamorphic paintings are particularly suited to elucidate religious themes. He quotes the 17th century French theologian Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet who – preaching on Ecclesiastes 9:11 – said that “anamorphic images were the perfect natural emblems of a world whose justice, hidden behind appearances, was impossible to see except from ‘a certain point’ revealed by faith in Christ” (Clark, Vanities of the Eye, p94).

Clark’s discussion of religious anamorphic paintings even alludes to an anamorphic work featuring one of the Saints depicted on the painting discussed above:

“In the 1640s, in some of the most complex and religiously charged pieces of anamorphic art of the entire period, Emmanuel Maignan and Jean Francois Niceron, both Minims with important connections to the scientific circles of Mersenne and Descartes, designed two frescoes, one of St Francis of Paolo (patron saint of the order) and the other of St John the Evangelist, to be executed along the side walls of a long gallery in the convent of the Minim house of Santa Trinità dei Monti in Rome. Both frescoes obviously presupposed a correct viewpoint at one end of the gallery matched by visual confusion as the viewer walked along its considerable length (34 metres), looking laterally at the now distorted images. But Maigan’s (which can still be seen) nevertheless contains all the tell-tale details of the double visual order – in this case, a miniature view of the Straits of Messina, with a ship passing through them towards a harbour and town, Calabrian roads and mountains behind, and St Francis himself walking on the surface of the waters on a cloak, all emerging in sharp focus from the chaos that is the face and habit of the anamorphized, and thus invisible, saint”. (Clark, Vanities of the Eye, p94)


Anamorphic fresco of Saint Francis of Paola, Santa Trinità dei Monti, Rome (Image attribution, Lucinda Keller, Cobalt Violet blog)

Images of the fresco – and its anamorphic nature – can be seen in a post from the blog Cobalt Violet. The fresco is also explored in this video from

In conclusion, we have to consider why the painting with which we begun this post was constructed with these particular Saints. Whilst any detailed study would take up more space than this blog post allows, we can perhaps suggest that the qualities of humility and penitence are being emphasized by depicting the two Saints Francis and Saint Peter respectively.

(For more on the technique of making anamorphic pictures such as this, see Felipe Nunes in his ‘Arts of Poetry, and of Painting and Symmetry’, translated in Veliz, loc. cit., chapter headed ‘How to make a panel with three figures, of which only one is visible at a time’.  Zahira Veliz, ‘Artists’ Techniques in Golden Age Spain’, Cambridge 1987, p.15).

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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