Saint Serapion was a Scottish monk who took part in the Third Crusade in 1190. He joined the Mercedarian Order in 1222 and dedicated his life to combating the enemies of Christianity. In 1240 the Moors held him as ransom for eighty-seven prisoners at Algiers. He was martyred for preaching the Gospel to Muslims and converting many to Christianity.
Although Saint Serapion was tied to a tree, brutally tortured, and decapitated, Zurbarán depicts the dead monk in an immaculate white wool habit decorated with the insignia of the order: the red and gold arms of the kingdom of Aragon surmounted by the white cross of Jerusalem. The elegant simplicity of the design, with the saint’s pose explicitly recalling Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, creates a timeless icon of martyrdom.
Zurbarán, who proudly signed and dated the work on the little paper at the right, spent his entire career in Spain. The Saint Serapion, like many of his works, was commissioned by a monastic order. In this case it was for the monastery of the Shod Mercedarians in Seville. This picture, and possibly a companion picture, hung in the Sala de Profundis, the room in which bodies of dead monks were laid before burial. Zurbarán’s intense masterpiece of humble yet noble sacrifice would have provided the spiritual inspiration for facing death bravely.
Francisco de Zurbarán
Saint Serapion, 1628
Oil on canvas
The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund, 1951.40