A new exhibit at UK’s National Gallery of Art illustrates how an itinerant preacher who led a life of poverty and cared for lepers moved artists throughout art history to picture him in their work.

The museum’s website talks about Saint Francis’ “powerful appeal to peace” and the many artists whose imaginations were captured by his message. So far, so good.

But the museum fails to identify the outlier in this show – Caravaggio and his surprisingly tender image “Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy.” (More about why he is odd man out in a moment).

Missing information

Also unmentioned on the museum website is that Caravaggio’s depiction of spiritual swooning was the first in art history. He beat Bernini’s “St. Theresa in Ecstasy” by a generation. And given the sensitivity he shows in this painting, the museum should have given him credit.

Why do I see Caravaggio the surprise in this show? Something historian Desmon Seward wondered about in his 1998 book “Caravaggio A Passionate Life” begins my answer.

Referring to the artist’s “Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy,” Seward wrote: “The painting is so deeply felt that one almost wonders if it reflects the artist’s own experience.”

This is a good place to discuss how odd it was for Caravaggio to portray religious fervor in the first place.

The short answer can be found in the way the BBC art historian Alastair Sooke described him – “hot-tempered punk.”

One of Caravaggio’s biographers in the 16th-century, Karel van Mander, gave an inkling about what made the painter a punk: He worked intensively for months at a time and then “swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side …ever ready to engage in a fight.”

Sad end

Despite being brought to trial 11 times for his violent behavior, Caravaggio kept on brawling.

Then, in 1606, he was forced to flee Rome, after killing a man, and spent the rest of his life on the run.

You don’t expect someone so warrish to be inspired by someone so given to peace. And given Caravaggio’s mindlessness, you don’t expect him to focus on his artmaking. But he did, even ignoring all possible influences from other artists.

Seventeenth-century art critic Giovanni Pietro Bellori described in his book “Lives of the Artists” how Caravaggio dissed everybody else’s art. (Yes, he got a lot of attention from scholars, which begs the question, why it isn’t reflected in museum’s exhibit notes).

Bellori said that Caravaggio thinks that all paintings are “child’s play”, unless they have been painted from life “he will not make a single brushstroke without close study from life.”

This habit was made extra plain in an anecdote about his painting “Raising Lazarus” told by Francesco Sussino, an 18th century priest and art lover.

As he wrote in “The lives of the Messina painters,” Caravaggio ordered his assistants to dig up a semi-decomposed corpse and pose with it in their arms.

And when they balked, he threatened them with a knife.

It’s that terrible temper that provided an answer to Seward wondering if Caravaggio’s painting of Francis in ecstasy reflected his own experience. I’d say it didn’t. But by the gentleness of the image, I think he wished it did.