Saint Peter Nolasco, founder of the Catholic order of Our Lady of Mercy (the Mercedarians), is depicted standing to the right as a relief of the Virgin and Christ Child is presented to his patron, King James I of Aragón. According to legend, the image was said to have been carved by angels from the stone of the Virgin’s tomb. It had been buried under a bell at the castle of El Puig, near Valencia, to preserve it from desecration during the Muslim invasion. When James retook Valencia in 1238, Peter Nolasco received a miraculous sign—three groups of stars falling from the sky and disappearing into the ground—which he interpreted as indicating the site of the hidden relief.
This painting was commissioned for the quadricentennial of that event by the Carmelites of the Convent of the Merced Calzada in Seville as part of a series intended to celebrate Nolasco's canonization in 1628.
Francisco de Zurbarán devoted himself almost entirely to religious work. The gravity of Zurbarán’s chosen subject matter is given almost mystical intensity by the simplicity and austerity of his compositions and his use of dramatic lighting effects.
The boy in the painting looking out at the viewer may be the artist’s son, Juan de Zurbarán. Juan’s "Still Life with Fruit and Pottery" is also in the Art Museum’s collection and often hangs in the same gallery as his father’s work.