Book Review: “Ribera” by Javier Portús

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Through Spanish Eyes

by Javier Portús

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[Image 1: Book cover.]

When the Chief Curator of Spanish Painting (up until 1700) at the Prado Museum in Spain decides to write a monograph on Jusepe de Ribera as part of that institution’s series spotlighting several of its art stars, it’s a given that he assumes the artist belongs in his country’s pantheon.  Lest there be any doubt, the note on the inside front dust jacket of Javier Portús’s Ribera claims the painter and printmaker as a “leading figure in the baroque Spanish tradition–alongside El Greco, Velázquez and Zurbarán,” and names him José rather than the more Italian, Jusepe.

In the very first paragraph, under the chapter heading “In Search of an Identity,” Portús acknowledges this inherent bias and addresses the tradition of categorizing Ribera as a Spanish painter even though the artist left Spain when he was barely twenty and never returned to the land of his birth.  Aware of the exalted status of artists in Italy, Ribera chose it over a Spain that was “‘a pious mother to foreigners but a very cruel stepmother to her own native sons.’”

[Image 2: Map of Iberian Peninsula, 1270-1492.]

Born in Xátiva, Valencia, in 1591, Ribera vanishes in the record for the next twenty years.  No documentation has so far been uncovered beyond his baptismal certificate, dated February 17, 1591, that indicates his whereabouts prior to June 11, 1611, when a record of payment for a painting places him in Parma, Italy.

There are, however, documents indicating that when Ribera was six years old, his father remarried and did so again ten years later.  It’s likely that the reasons for the remarriages were the deaths in childbirth, or from illness, of the boy’s first two mothers.  Perhaps the second loss, before the boy was sixteen, prompted the fledgling artist to leave home and seek his fortune where his work would be more highly regarded, a possibility that squares with recent scholarship that pushes back the date of his arrival in Italy–specifically Rome–by several years.

By 1613, Ribera was well enough established to receive an invitation to a meeting at the Accademia di San Luca in Rome.  During his subsequent three years in that city, he came in contact with the legacy of Caravaggio, an artist who had fled the city by 1606, leaving behind many followers and plenty of artwork to impress and influence the young Spanish immigrant.  That Ribera led “a disordered life” there suggests that he fell in with the artists who once accompanied Caravaggio on his nightly rounds and got into street brawls and entanglements with the law.

Portús picks up his narrative in Rome, laying out his position regarding Ribera’s national affiliation, first by noting how the painter’s style evolved from Caravaggesque tenebrism and undefined space to lighter-colored, multi-figured compositions in architectural settings, and then by drawing attention to the manner in which the artist signed his name.

[Image 3:
Denial of St. Peter (c. 1614, oil on canvas, 64.2″ x 91.75″ [163 x 233 cm]).  Galleria Corsini, Rome.
-Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Denial of St. Peter (c. 1610, oil on canvas, 37″ x 49.4″ [94 x 125.4 cm]).  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
-Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600, oil on canvas, 127″ x 130″ [322 x 340 cm]).  San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome.]

That Caravaggio’s tenebrism had a strong impact on Ribera’s early works is readily accepted by Portús, who finds in the younger artist’s “painterly technique and…enthusiasm for chiaroscuro effect” a direct link.  He seems to miss the other commonalities between the master and the newly minted artist that continued well into Ribera’s later years, similarities that include more than just the raking light that originates on the left.  Caravaggio’s theatrical compositions placed gesturing, three-quarter-length figures, wearing dramatic facial expressions, in an undefined space, characteristics evident in the paintings Portús selects to connect the two painters.

In his Denial of St. Peter (c. 1614), Ribera borrows the denying saint’s pose directly from Caravaggio’s painting of the same name (about 1610) and includes figures around a table, a common theme among the Caravaggisti and traceable to Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600), which is also the source of Christ’s pointing finger in the younger painter’s Resurrection of Lazarus (c.1616), which Portús mentions in his comparison of the two artists’ work.

[Image 4:
The Resurrection of Lazarus (c.1616, oil on canvas, 55″ x 90½” [171 x 289 cm]).  Museo del Prado, Madrid.
-Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600, oil on canvas, 127″ x 130″ [322 x 340 cm]).  San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome.
-Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Raising of Lazarus (1608-9, oil on canvas, 149.6″ x 108.3″ [380 x 275 cm]).  Museo Nazionale, Messina.]

The curator, in noting the power of tenebrism to heighten emotions, sees a qualitative difference between the “tumult and anxiety” in Caravaggio’s Raising of Lazarus (1608-9) compared with the toned down emotional content of Ribera’s version, observing too the contrast between the “deliberate crowding” in the former and a “clear distinct space” for each figure in the latter. It seems strange, though, that the writer would choose a painting with a compositional format so removed from Ribera’s and from the more relevant Caravaggios with their three-quarter-length figures in shallow space.

[Image 5: The Communion of the Apostles (1651, oil on canvas, 157.5″ x 157.5″ [400 x 400 cm]).  Certosa di San Martino, Naples.]

Having compared and contrasted Ribera’s early Caravaggesque style with that of its originator, Portús goes on to illustrate how that style gradually evolved over time, retaining its naturalism.  He uses the large-scale Communion of the Apostles (1651) done the year before Ribera’s death to chart those changes, particularly in the way the painter has brightened his palette and opened up space with a blue sky populated by flying angels and an arcade receding to some unspecified place.  Portús sees the drapery across the top as the artist’s allusion to the painting’s artificial nature, though it could just as easily be read as a stage curtain pulled back to reveal the dramatic event.  Marveling at Ribera’s skill, the writer points out the interplay of the five hands’ participating in this first offering of holy communion, as well as the parallel action of the kneeling St. Peter’s left hand with the right foot of the standing Christ.

[Image 6: The Immaculate Conception (1635, oil on canvas, 67.7″ x 112.2″ [502 x 329 cm]).  Church of the Convento de las Agustinas Recoletas de Monterrey, Salamanca.]

To further note Ribera’s gradual move away from a Caravaggesque style, Portús cites two other paintings–The Immaculate Conception (1635) and St. Januarius Emerges Unscathed from the Oven (1646), both undeniably different in appearance from early works.  The reader will discover in a matter of pages, however, that these paintings were contemporaneous with others that continued to include many elements from Ribera’s Rome years.

[Image 7:
St. Januarius Emerges Unscathed from the Oven (1646, oil on copper, 126″ x 78.75″ [320 x 200 cm]).  Real Cappella del Tesoro di San Gennaro, Naples.
-Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Martyrdom of St. Matthew (1599-1600, oil on canvas, 127.2″ x 135″ [323 x 343 cm]).  San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome.]

In fact, a closer look at the composition and figures in the St. Januarius demonstrates Ribera’s memory of Caravaggio’s Martyrdom of St. Matthew (1599-1600), which he would have seen in the chapel where it did (and still does) reside in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.  First and most obvious is the quote of Caravaggio’s open-mouthed boy, wearing white and looking back over his shoulder at the impending execution.  Ribera mirrors that expression and pose in his young man in red on the left, who looks out at the viewer.  Less direct but clearly related is the placement of a foreground figure in each lower corner to frame the action.  Like Caravaggio, Ribera positions one with his back to the audience and the other stretched out on the ground, body facing forward and head turning back toward the unmarred saint.  Tumult abounds in both pictures.

The debate about Ribera’s nationality takes on new complexities once he relocates to Naples, where he is documented by 1616.  The bustling city, capital of a Spanish viceroyalty, offered the artist opportunities to market himself to his compatriots, particularly the procession of viceroys who came and went during the 36 years Ribera lived there.  Through commissions and sales to patrons who moved between Naples and Spain, the painter spread his influence to at-home Spanish artists, the names of which Portús lists as he picks up the thread about nationality with a focus on Ribera’s signature.

[Image 8: Balthasar’s Vision (1635, oil on canvas, 20.5″ x 25.2″ [52 x 64 cm]).  Palazzo Arcivescovile, Milan.]

In Spain, writers like Francisco Pacheco claimed the artist as their own; in Italy, he was known as lo Spagnoletto, a nod to his place of origin.  A diminutive with negative connotations, the nickname translated to the Spanish el españoleto but was bypassed by Ribera when he settled on signature styles.  Portús points out how the painter signed an unusually large number of works compared to other artists of that time and chose the more dignified español over the well-known españoleto to emphasize his association with Spain.

The curator delves into a variety of signature issues in trying to discern whether Ribera identified himself as first and foremost Spanish.  Whatever else the proliferation of signed works might indicate, they show that Ribera was “greatly concerned with leaving written evidence of the authorship of his work,” and Portús finds plenty of examples to prove that point.

Often the signatures call attention to themselves as integral parts of the composition.  In the small canvas, Balthasar’s Vision (1635), Ribera painted “Jusepe de Ribera español F. 1635″ in the same script used by the hand that writes on the wall.

[Image 9:
Drunken Silenus (1626, oil on canvas, 72.8″ x 90.2″ [185 x 229 cm]).  Museo di Capodimonte, Naples.
-Detail of signature.  Drunken Silenus (1626, oil on canvas, 72.8″ x 90.2″ [185 x 229 cm]).  Museo di Capodimonte, Naples.]

In the Drunken Silenus (1626), in the lower left corner, a snake–that symbol of envy–tears apart a scrap of paper on which is written the artist’s name.

[Image 10: The Communion of the Apostles (1651, oil on canvas, 157.5″ x 157.5″ [400 x 400 cm]).  Certosa di San Martino, Naples.]

In The Communion of the Apostles, in the lower left, the piece of paper is so large as not to be missed.

[Image 11:
Large Grotesque Head (1622, etching, 8.5″ x 5.7″ [21.7 x 14.5 cm]).  Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna.
Head of a Man with Little Figures on His Head (c. 1630, pen and brown ink with brown wash over some black chalk on paper, 611/16″ x 41/16″ [17 x 10.4cm]).  Philadelphia Museum of Art.]

Signed works like these are more abundant after 1625, but the desire to publicize his prowess as an artist is already evident several years earlier in etchings Ribera created and circulated to advertise his wares and generate income.  Unlike paintings, prints lend themselves to mass production and widespread distribution, and Ribera exploited both attributes to reach potential customers throughout Europe.

These mostly signed works also constituted a showcase for the artist’s drawing skills and his command of the printmaking process.  Portús sees the etchings, seventeen in number and created prior to 1630, as vehicles for Ribera’s “highly questing creative spirit,” observing in them “an unequivocally Riberesque world…of narrative resources, human types, varied subject matter and different emotional climates.”  In the Large Grotesque Head (1622), the artist explores a particular type and in the drawing of a Head of a Man with Little Figures on His Head (c. 1630) he displays a touch of whimsy and playfulness, though a darker meaning might lurk nearby.  Might those little men represent obsessional thinking and/or auditory hallucinations?

[Image 12:
Calvary (c. 1618, oil on canvas, 132.25″ x 90.5″ [336 x 230 cm]).  Collegiate Church, Osuna.
-Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Martha and Mary Magdalen (1595–96, oil and tempera on canvas, 39⅜” x 53″ [100 x 134.5 cm]).  Detroit Institute of Arts.]

If Ribera identified himself as Spanish, his paintings anchor him firmly in the Italian Baroque and were seen as such by two practiced connoisseurs, Philip IV and Diego Velázquez, when they selected his artwork while redecorating El Escorial in the late 1650s.  His “thoroughly Italianate” style qualified him as the only Spanish painter to be displayed in the company of such Italian masters as Titian and Veronese.

Straddling both worlds began to pay off for Ribera soon after he landed in Naples, with commissions for paintings that arrived at their destination–the Collegiate Church in Osuna, Spain–by 1627.  Among these was a crucifixion, Calvary (c. 1618), a tour de force in tenebrism and emotion, whose colorful fabrics bring to mind those in Caravaggio’s Martha and Mary Magdalen (1595-96).

[Image 13:
-View of the nave of the Certosa di San Martino, Naples.
-Paintings of the prophets Joel and Amos above the church arches in the Certosa di San Martino, Naples.]

A decade later, Ribera would execute in Naples a series of prophets for the Certosa di San Martino, a monastery on a hill overlooking the city.  The painter met the challenge of devising compositions that conformed to the irregular spaces into which they were to be placed by relating each figure to its surrounding architecture.  Portús mentions that although a number of Ribera’s paintings did find their way to religious institutions like the Osuna church and Carthusian Monastery, commissions like these were rare.  Instead, the artist specialized “in medium-size and small paintings, conceived for private collections and chapels and easily transportable,” mostly of a sacred nature.

[Image 14: St. Bartholomew (c. 1613, oil on canvas, 49.6″ x 38.2″ [126 x 97 cm]).  Fondazione Roberto Longhi, Florence.]

Portús soon delves into the “Riberesque” world depicted in those compositions, one “in which joy or happiness is hard to find, in which laughter creates a sinister effect and tenderness is rare.”  At the same time, themes of “piety, stoicism, devotion, austerity, meditation and drama abound,” with “cruelty and the grotesque” an integral part of much of his work.  Most of those qualities, particularly the last two, are quite evident in the bloodless but flayed St. Bartholomew (c. 1613) who holds in his right hand the instrument of his torture and drapes over his left arm his recently removed skin, replete with facial features and hair.  The theme of flaying remains of interest to Ribera, who comes back to this saint in future paintings and also explores the myth of Marsyas and Apollo.

Of Ribera’s style, Portús notes its naturalism, as seen in the specific human types that populate the artist’s compositions, and its “precise and descriptive pictorial idiom.”  He describes how the painter clothes his humble characters in earthy-colored, outdated garments that emphasize their poverty, and gives them bearded–they are mostly male–expressive faces with wrinkled, weatherbeaten skin.  Portús traces this rejection of the prevailing Renaissance preference for idealization to certain antique Roman sculpture, while missing the possible influence of Caravaggio’s depiction of religious figures as ordinary people who sometimes reveal their dirty feet.

[Image 15:
Smell (c. 1615, oil on canvas, 45.25″ x 34.65″ [115 x 88 cm]).  Private collection, Madrid.
Sight (c. 1615, oil on canvas, 44.9″ x 35″ [114 x 89 cm]).  Museo Franz Mayer, Mexico, DF.]

Among Ribera’s secular subjects, a series of the five senses dates to his early years in Rome and reappears in later paintings that dramatically demonstrate the evolution of his style.  A long-standing traditional theme in Western art, the senses presented opportunities for innovation that, according to Portús, Ribera exploited by situating all the figures behind a table, directing their gaze toward the viewer (except for the blind man in Touch [1615]), and giving them objects and behavior that illustrate the pictured sense.  Light streams in from the upper left, illuminating the detailed depiction of still-life objects, facial features and cloth.  Portús notes that in Sight, Ribera equipped the character with a telescope, a device only recently invented by Galileo.

[Image 16:
Touch (1615, oil on canvas, 44.85″ x 35″ [114 x 89 cm]).  Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, California.
Touch (1632, oil on canvas, 49.2″ x 38.5″ [125 x 98 cm]).  Museo del Prado, Madrid.]

When the painter returned to the theme of the senses some fifteen years later with his 1632 Touch, he retained the trope of using a blind man perceiving a sculpted head to emphasize the absence of sight.  What Portús calls the “unnecessary” portrait painting on the table in the 1615 version, echoed by a similar object in the later one, is ascribed to Ribera’s need to keep the composition of this sense parallel with that of the others in the series.  It might also refer to the paragone, that age-old competition between sculpture and painting for highest artistic honors.

The most immediate differences between the two paintings occur in the lighting, range of color, pose, attire and detail with which Ribera renders it all.  The raking light from the left that divides the background diagonally in the first work is replaced by a mostly dark backdrop that lacks any direct relationship to the light that picks out the details in the face, hands and sculpture.  Where the blind man, wearing what might be a sculptor’s smock, turns from the viewer in the earlier version, he now wears tattered clothing and faces front, handling a less classical head.  Finally, Ribera has aged him by greying his beard and wrinkling his skin.

[Image 17: Protagoras (1637, oil on canvas, 48.88″ x 38.75″ [124 x 98 cm]).  Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut.]

The general layout the painter devised for picturing the senses became a handy template to be used freely in subsequent single-figure paintings.  Using a limited palette, Ribera represented three-quarter-length philosophers and saints against a dark background, sitting or standing behind or near a table adorned with still-life objects symbolic of the subject–all depicted with remarkable detail.

Counting over thirty paintings of philosophers done by the artist, Portús writes about them at length, concluding that anyone standing before them “might believe they are in the presence of a collection of ragged ‘secular saints.’” In comparing a couple of Ribera’s philosophers to similarly presented saints, he observes that the clothing of the saints is considerably neater.

[Image 18:
Democritus (1614, oil on canvas, 40.15″ x 29.9″ [102 x 76 cm]).  Private collection, London.
Democritus (1630, oil on canvas, 49.2″ x 31.9″ [125 x 81 cm]).  Museo del Prado, Madrid.]

In revisiting one philosopher in particular, Ribera again provided an opportunity to compare the changes over time in his thinking about his subject and his art.  The Democritus (1614) from his Rome years has a similar palette and lighting scheme as the contemporaneous Touch, while the Democritus executed in 1630 displays changes comparable to those associated with the 1632 Touch.  In both renditions of Democritus, Ribera has associated philosophy with poverty by emphasizing the torn clothing.

[Image 19: St. Jerome and the Angel of Judgment (1626, oil on canvas, 142.5″ x 64.5″ [362 x 164]).  Museo di Capodimonte, Naples.]

Having focused mostly on paintings from Ribera’s years in Rome, Portús now moves with him to Naples, where the painter relocated around 1616, married and added to his repertoire large-format canvases of saints, many of which are shown at the moment of their martyrdom in various stages of exposure.  As the writer puts it, Ribera “discovered one of the methods he would apply with great frequency and success [to transmit] feelings of religious devotion: description of flesh…[that endows] the human body with special significance as the scenario of saintliness.”  Portús attributes this change of focus to Ribera’s encounter with a different client base, by implication less sophisticated.

An early example of Ribera’s exploitation of flesh’s potential for expressiveness is his St. Jerome and the Angel of Judgment (1626).  In this vertical composition, the artist has raised the saint’s arms to expose his brightly illuminated bare torso, making it the center of interest and a testament to the vulnerability of the body, appropriate for a scene where St. Jerome is being called to his maker.  The lighting, gestures and threatening dark clouds heighten the drama and make practically audible the trumpet’s ominous blare.

[Image 20:
Magdalena Penitent (1637, oil on canvas, 38.2″ x 26″ [97 x 66 cm]).  Museo del Prado, Madrid.
St. Mary the Egyptian (1641, oil on canvas, 52.4″ x 41.75″ [133 x 106 cm]).  Musée Fabre, Montpellier.]

Two paintings of penitent women–their creation separated by just a few years–demonstrate the impact bare skin can have on the expressive tone of a composition.   In Magdalena Penitent (1637), a fully clothed Mary is shown with the furrowed brow and lowered upper eyelids of sorrow as she leans her head on her prayerfully clasped hands, which in turn are supported by a skull they partially embrace.  Her remorse is as evident as her beauty.

In the starkly different St. Mary the Egyptian (1641), who is often confused with Mary Magdalene, Ribera places this patron saint of penitents in a barren environment near a skull and crust of bread.  Hands joined in prayer, Mary of Egypt gazes upward, her ascetic penance underscored by the heavy brown cloth that doesn’t quite cover her weathered skin.  By exposing her flesh, Ribera infused the scene with the same sense of vulnerable mortality that he did in his St. Jerome and the Angel of Judgment, a feeling absent from his lovely Magdalena Penitent.

[Image 21: The Martyrdom of St. Philip (1639, oil on canvas, 92.1″ x 92.1″ [234 x 234]).  Museo del Prado, Madrid.]

Further exploiting the expressive potential of nakedness, as Portús observes, Ribera arrived at a formula for his martyrdom narratives, key elements of which are nude or partially draped male saints whose nakedness and expressions of meditative acceptance stand in sharp contrast to those of their clothed torturers, intent on their murderous tasks with sadistic glee.  In some of these paintings, figures populate the background, variously watching or not.

In one example, The Martyrdom of St. Philip (1639), two diagonals bisect the picture and meet at the saint’s spotlighted rib cage, which comes into view as his body is slowly hoisted up–his wrists tied to the crosspiece of his crucifixion.  Among the spectators, expressions range from the amused interest of the man on the right who supports his head on his hand to the knowing look on the woman in the lower left who holds a baby and stares out at the viewer, implicating all in this act of torture.

[Image 22:
Scene of Torture (1637-1640, pen and brown ink, brown wash, 5⅜” x 10⅝” [13.6 x 27.2 cm]).  Teylers Museum, Haarlem.
Torture Scene (N.d., drawing, no dimensions).  Museo Civico, Bassano del Grappa.]

Ribera’s personal interest in such scenes of torture shows up in drawings he executed “for which no sources have been found in the Scriptures.”  An undated one, apparently in pen and brown ink with brown wash, shows a tree festooned with miniature figures–easily mistaken for acrobats–involved in a hanging.  A man in a small audience, with a child hanging onto him, indicates the performance to a newcomer who tips his hat in friendly greeting.  No one seems troubled by the unfolding events.  In another ink drawing, the executioner is about to hack into his defenseless victim who is stretched out between, and tied to, two sets of posts.

[Image 23: The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew (1617, oil on canvas, 70.5″ x 52.75″ [179 x 139 cm]).  Collegiate Church, Osuna, Spain.]

As mentioned earlier, flaying held a particular fascination for Ribera who explored that form of torture in at least five versions of The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew.  The Rome 1613 portrait of the saint holding his skin was followed in 1617 by perhaps the artist’s first Naples edition, which has an almost clinical quality to it.

[Image 24: The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew (1628, oil on canvas, 57″ x 85″ [145 x 216 cm]).  Palazzo Pitti, Galleria Palatina, Florence.]

Over the years, Ribera would create additional compositions portraying St. Bartholomew, each exemplifying his stylistic preferences at the time.

[Image 25: The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew (1630, oil on canvas, 79.5″ x 60.2″ [202 x 153 cm]).  Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona.]

[Image 26: The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew (1634, oil on canvas, 40.9″ x 44.5″ 104 x 113 cm]).  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.]

In the 1634 version, he simplified the composition by eliminating figures and zooming in on the face of the emotionally detached executioner who regards his victim with curiosity as he sharpens his knife.  St. Bartholomew looks heavenward as if seeking out some source of comfort in this moment where his faith is being tested.

[Image 27:
Apollo and Marsyas (1637, oil on canvas, 71.6″ x 91.3″ [182 x 232 cm]).  Museo di Capodimonte, Naples.
-Detail of Marsyas’s face, flipped.
-Detail of Study of Noses and Mouths (c. 1622, etching).  Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna.]

In discussing Ribera’s treatment of emotions, Portús isolates his special interest in those “related to devotion, piety, cruelty and pain,” recalling drawings and prints like the Study of Noses and Mouths (c. 1622) to illustrate the artist’s “penchant for these themes and for the grotesque.”  The curator connects the wide-open mouth of that etching to the victim’s scream in Apollo and Marsyas (1637), a distinctly different response to the slicing knife from that of St. Bartholomew in the 1630 version of his ordeal.

[Image 28:
-Detail of Marsyas’s face, flipped, Apollo and Marsyas (1637, oil on canvas, 71.6″ x 91.3″ [182 x 232 cm]).  Museo di Capodimonte, Naples.
-Detail of face, flipped, The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew (1630, oil on canvas, 79.5″ x 60.2″ [202 x 153 cm]).  Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona.]

Portús observes that in Ribera’s depiction of mythological subjects, “their facial expressions…invariably reveal all the horror…[while] the attitude of the saints is always one of piety and acceptance of torture,…a highly effective means…to convey religious feeling.”  This difference is apparent in the faces of Marsyas and St. Bartholomew; the former screams in agony and looks directly at the viewer, while the latter contains his anguish and rolls his eyes upward in an attempt to mentally escape his pain.

[Image 29: The Trinity (1635, oil on canvas, 89″ x 46.5″ [226  x 118 cm]).  Museo del Prado, Madrid.]

Using the emotionally expressive figures in the colorful St. Januarius Emerges Unscathed from the Oven as a bridge back to his opening thesis about Ribera’s later change in direction toward a less tenebristic style, Portús attributes the appearance in the 1630s of an “extension of the artist’s palette toward warm, sumptuous tones…[and] an engaging, relaxed, expansive piety…expressed through marked chromatic sensuality” to the Neo-Venetianism that was sweeping across Italy, and with the arrival in Naples during that decade of a number of classicizing artists.  He cites The Trinity (1635) as one of several works that exemplify this shift.

A close look at that painting reveals more about the fluidity with which Ribera moved among his stylistic options than about any fundamental transformation in his artistic practices.  Warm, high-value colors distinguish the heavenly sphere from the lower-register darkness out of which angels emerge and carry the body of Christ, whose pale skin and white shroud contrasts dramatically with the shadowy background.

[Image 30:
St. Jerome in His Study (1613, oil on canvas, 48.4″ x 39.4″ [123 x 100]).  Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.
St. Jerome Penitent (1652, oil on canvas, 30.4″ x 28.3″ [77.2 x 71.8]).  Museo del Prado, Madrid.]

Ribera’s style continued to mature with time and practice and while there are noticeable differences between St. Jerome in His Study (1613)–his first signed painting–and St. Jerome Penitent (1652)–the last signed one completed before his death in 1652 (a comparison with which Portús ends his discourse), he never abandoned the tenebrism of his youth.

In St. Jerome Penitent, the saint bares a softly-modeled, anatomically descriptive right shoulder and boasts a head of shaggy grey hair with matching beard.  Even at this late date, Ribera found uses for his earliest technique of zooming in close on brightly lit, half-to-three-quarter-length figures accompanied by identifying still-life objects.  In this St. Jerome, he applied paint with short, confident brushstrokes that follow the contours of forms and animate the hair, hallmarks of the adept and brilliant painter he had become.

The mature Ribera sharply contrasts with the younger one, however, in the degree to which his subject now engages with the viewer, as Portús astutely points out.  In the 1613 St. Jerome in His Study, the saint is occupied with his writing, unaware of the observer.  In the later St. Jerome Penitent, the figure is positioned closer to the picture plane and looks through it–if not directly at the audience at least in its direction.  The 61-year-old Ribera seems to have evolved not just as an artist but also as a man far more conscious of the power of relationship.

[Image 31: Magdalena Ventura (The Bearded Lady) (1631, oil on canvas, 77.2″ x 50″ [196 x 127 cm]).  Exhibited at the Museo del Prado, Madrid.]

The life of Jusepe de Ribera came to an end on September 3, 1652.  No contemporary writer chose to immortalize this Spanish-Italian artist with a biography that would have preserved vital facts about his life.  In the absence of such a record, posterity has been left with no information about his psychologically formative childhood years nor about his early training as an artist–where or with whom that might have been.  Perhaps a new generation of art historians will be inspired to rummage around the archives of Xátiva and Valencia in search of the missing pieces that will finally fill in the blanks of this great artist’s life.  Meanwhile, art lovers can continue to marvel at the enigma who painted with such veracity the stunning portrait of Magdalena Ventura (The Bearded Lady) (1631).

Brown, Jonathan.  Paintings in Spain: 1500-1700.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.
_____________.  Velázquez: Painter and Courtier.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.
Marandel, J. Patrice, ed.  Caravaggio and His Legacy.  New York: Prestel Verlag, 2012.
Peréz, Alfonso E., and Nicola Spinosa.  Jusepe de Ribera 1591-1652.  New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992.
Portús, Javier.  Ribera.  Barcelona, Spain: Ediciones Poligrafa, 2011.

[A version of this review with footnotes is available.  If interested, contact]