From Botticelli to Marvel: why artists love St Francis

‘A small, black, repulsive picture’ is not how most people today would describe Zurbaran’s haunting painting of ‘Saint Francis in Meditation’ (1635-9) in the National Gallery. But that was how one Protestant critic of its acquisition in 1853 described this image of an Italian saint satirised three centuries earlier by the German Lutheran cleric Erasmus Alber in his Koran of the Franciscans. Alber chose his title advisedly, for one of this peacemaking saint’s legendary acts of diplomacy was initiating an interfaith dialogue with the Muslim Sultan of Egypt, al-Malik al-Kamil. In 1219, so the story goes, Francis crossed to Damietta, then under siege by troops of the Fifth Crusade, slipped