Much of the art of Spain can be summed up with two words: Catholicism and death. Though to be fair, there is certainly much more to it than that. Jusepe de Ribera brought both of these aspects into his work, but he managed to do so with such raw emotion. We've seen before artists from Giotto to Frans Hals who had a knack for painting emotion and expression into their works. Ribera did so in such a way that the pain of his subjects actually grips the viewer, and brings the viewer into their suffering.
Ribera's focus for many of his paintings was the martyrdom of saints. But these weren't featureless portraits of martyrs going to their own death willingly. Ribera painted the pain in their faces as they suffered horrendous tortures. One of Ribera's most famous martyrdom scenes is the Martyrdom of St. Philip. Here we see the Saint during the moment of his crucifixion. But the scene is not of him hanging on the cross or being tied down to it. Rather it shows him as he is being pulled up by the cross beam, with the expression of agony and fear on his face.
Ribera was practically obsessed with the theme of martyrdoms, and each one that he painted depicted the horror and the darkness, and the brutally honest pain of the deaths that they are sometimes difficult to look at. Ribera painted a couple of versions of the Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew, who was executed by being skinned alive. Ribera's graphic detail of Bartholomew's skin being ripped from his body, and exposing the muscle underneath while Bartholomew watches in agony is perhaps the most disturbing depiction of the saint.
Ribera also managed to deviate from the traditional Spanish paintings of fervent Catholocism and paint a few mythological subjects. Much of Ribera's work was done in Naples, and he was known there as "Lo Spagnoletto," or the little Spaniard. His later work seemed to have a bit of influence from the Venetian school as seen in artists such as Titian, as they were very rich in color and soft in modeling. This can be seen in his paintings of the Holy Family, which were much more tender and light, in contrast to his dark, Caravaggesque scenes of martyrdom. In any case, Ribera's work was a prime example of the powerful imagery and brilliant compositions that made the Spanish Baroque stand out from other movements in art history.
Jusepe de Ribera
The Martyrdom of St. Philip
oil on canvas
234 x 234 cm.