"Almost as unbelievable as a church painting." Simon Vouet and his Saint Francis Tempted

In 1624, for the Alaleoni Chapel in the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina in Rome, the Frenchman Simon Vouet (Paris, 1590 - 1649) painted one of the most daring and sensual paintings ever to enter a church: the Temptation of St. Francis.

Exactly one hundred years ago, in 1921, the physiologist Mariano Luigi Patrizi published a booklet that attempted a psychological reconstruction of Caravaggio’s personality from his works: it was entitled Un pittore criminale (A Criminal Painter), and it is remembered today mainly because it is counted among the texts that helped forge the myth of Merisi’s curse. In the chapter devoted to the painter’s sentimental and emotional life, Patrizi had ventured into a comparison between Caravaggio and Simon Vouet, simply to establish that the Lombard, the father of pictorial verism, had never dared the outbursts of sexuality of which, on the contrary, the Frenchman had been capable.Patrizi had in mind the Temptation of St. Francis, Vouet’s reckless painting that adorns the Alaleoni Chapel in the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina in Rome. “By a wolf-bed a bagascia is undressing herself”: so begins Patrizi’s description. The scene, uncommon in art history but far from a hapax, recalls a precise episode from the Fioretti of St. Francis, the unique collection of chapters from the life of the saint of Assisi and the Franciscan order that had been assembled in the 14th century, in Latin, by the Friar Minor Ugolino Boniscambi.

The episode is recounted in the XXIV fioretto, the one in which St. Francis converts to the Christian faith the “Soldier of Babylon,” who in medieval Franciscan hagiography (in the Legenda maior, for example) can be identified as the Sultan of Egypt, Al-Malik al-Kamil, whom the Assisian actually met during his journey to the East in 1219. Legend has it that, during his stay, the saint was induced to sin by a harlot who led him to her chamber. Francis preferred to be consumed by the flames of a brazier, rather than by those of sinful passion: he therefore threw himself on the coals of the living fire burning to warm the room, and provocatively invited the woman to lie with him on the burning embers. The harlot, frightened, bewildered, and deeply shaken because Francis was not being scratched by the coals, repented of her sin and intention, and amazed by the miracle she had just witnessed, chose to convert to the faith of Christ.

The iconographic theme had been suggested to Vouet by Paul Alaleoni, master of ceremonies to Pope Urban VIII and commissioner of the cycle dedicated to St. Francis, which was to decorate the family chapel in San Lorenzo in Lucina. And the French painter resolved it with a sensual nocturne imbued with Caravaggism in its references to a lived, weekday reality, kindled and palpitating, reread through the filter of Gerrit van Honthorst and Trophime Bigot, and yet with his eyes turned to the Emilian painters. Above all Giovanni Lanfranco, Roberto Longhi noted, and in particular the “Roman” Lanfranco of the second decade of the century, with cues drawn from Carraccian solutions: an admirable synthesis of truth, finesse of poses, precious chromaticism. William Crelly has written that Vouet, while profoundly touched by Caravaggio’s revolutionary ideas, is nevertheless much less Caravaggesque than many of his contemporaries: for the Parisian, the Caravaggesque language seems an almost instinctive choice, elaborated later in complex and thoughtful, engaging and powerful paintings, such as that of the Alaleoni Chapel.

Simon Vouet, Tentazione di san Francesco (1624; olio su tela, 185 x 252 cm; Roma, San Lorenzo in Lucina)
Simon Vouet, Temptation of St. Francis (1624; oil on canvas, 185 x 252 cm; Rome, San Lorenzo in Lucina)

The French painter, Jacques Thuillier wrote in his substantial monograph on Vouet, “does not hesitate to treat the subject realistically,” choosing to sketch a nocturne “with the manifest desire to show that he can rival the luminists then in vogue,” yet giving the scene “the grandeur and severity of the ’history painting,’ thanks to the slenderness of the composition and the monumental power of the figures.” Vouet’s boldness is therefore not only in the painting’s content: where “Honthorst or Bigot,” Thuillier continued, “would reduce the painting to a monochrome in order to make the chiaroscuro stand out better, Vouet tries to preserve the color, except then to restore the balance through dark, saturated, and all the more refined tones.”

The scene is set in the woman’s room, illuminated by a candle that shines unrealistic light on the marble jambs, the chimney lintels, and the picture frame. The bodies of the harlot and the saint, who has just thrown himself on the embers, also glow. With that candle, it almost seems as if Vouet wants to launch an ideal challenge to his fellow countryman Bigot, whose production lacks subjects in which the torch illuminates a context in which an action is taking place, which, moreover, in the painting of San Lorenzo in Lucina is tense, tight, begins and is consumed in the space of a very short time. The impetus with which Francis has thrown himself to the ground is suggested by the complicated pose, with his left elbow resting on the ground and his opposing leg still seeming to seek a comfortable position, as well as by his still dismayed expression. He is naked, only a veil covering his private parts. In the background, beyond the door that gives access to the room, a figure can be glimpsed: according to Crelly, it could be the devil himself, forced to note “that his power is ineffective against the chastity of Saint Francis.”

She, on the other hand, discreet, provocative, glowing in the glare of the light, is covered by a heavy fur-trimmed cloak that has already descended from her right shoulder to reveal her blouse, and her pose, an almost literal quotation of the Salome that appears in the Beheading of the Baptist painted by Van Honthorst for Santa Maria della Scala in Rome, seems almost to communicate both moments of the story: as she lifts her robe to uncover her leg, in an attempt to tickle the saint’s fancies, she is still the temptress who wants to plunge Francis into sin, but the almost backward gesture of her left arm is the first motion of amazement at the miracle taking place before her eyes, which will lead her to convert to the faith and spend the rest of her life in works of charity, as the Fioretti narrate. She is as if caught in a moment in which she is advancing and retreating at the same time, in a kind of dance imbued with a subtle eroticism, and which also involves the saint, caught by Vouet in the midst of his struggle to repress his impulses.

There are many scholars who have pointed out the strangeness of this painting: probably no canvas intended for a church has ever been as daring as Vouet’s Temptation , nor perhaps others have ever matched its intense erotic undertones. Anna Colombi Ferretti has written that Vouet’s masterpiece is a painting “almost unbelievable as a church painting,” moreover referring to the canvas with another title: Saint Francis Tempted by the Courtesan, which would later also be suggested by Thuillier as a much more precise title than the usual Temptation of Saint Francis. A more complete title, too: what Simon Vouet depicts is the clash between the senses and faith in the fullness of its unfolding. Indeed, perhaps it is a moment in which the senses prevail: the saint’s discomfort can still be felt, the torment of his soul is still clearly visible, the harlot has not yet withdrawn from the morbid purpose of uniting her flesh with Francis’s, the realization of the miracle that has taken place is still in its first, instinctive stage.

But the presence of this painting in a church is justified, not only because the movement of that delicate female hand is the first embryo of conversion, but also because, in depicting with such daily vividness the saint’s difficulties, Vouet probably wants to show the faithful how arduous it is to control instincts and how studded with difficulties is his path. Yet even in the face of such an easy and tangible possibility of giving in, there is a way not to be overwhelmed: this was the idea that the painting was meant to suggest to the seventeenth-century believer. And to convey it, the sacred painting of the time also admitted such concrete scenes. These are the reasons that today allow us to admire in San Lorenzo in Lucina one of the most sensual paintings that has ever entered a church.