This painting depicts the heavenly vision of Saint Francis of Paola (1416–1507), founder of the Order of Minims, a religious order committed to perpetual abstinence and acts of humility. The saint experiences a vision in which the word “Charitas” (meaning Charity) appears in an aureole of golden light, accompanied by cherubs. The word became the motto of the Minims, and appears on the order’s heraldic crest.
In the background, the saint appears again standing on a shore with two kneeling companions. This scene in the distance refers to a miracle in which Francis calmed a stormy sea and ferried the men across the Straits of Messina on his cloak after they had been refused passage on a ship.
The subject of the painting should not be considered simply in terms of its visionary and narrative elements, but as a representation of faith itself as embodied by Saint Francis of Paola. Elderly and bearded, he is humbly dressed and appears to bear the weight of his calling on his slender walking staff. He gazes at the message borne aloft by the heavenly host with a look of reverent awe and dutiful acceptance. The simplicity of setting, sober tonality, loose brushwork, and harmony of both material and divine presence, are all consistent with Murillo's late style and help to convey a scene of passionate spiritual appeal.