Monday, March 24, 2014

40 Days of Paintings - Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew (Jusepe de Ribera)

I am excited about today's painting, and actually a lot of this week I'll be covering some of my favorite paintings of the Spanish Baroque.  When it comes to Spanish painting, there are two words that immediately come to mind - God and death.  Both are very traditional concepts in Spanish art because of one particular event in Spanish history - the Inquisition. 
Jusepe de Ribera was a painter of many things, mostly religious subjects.  And he did a particularly dark series of paintings of the Martyrdoms of the Saints.  Ribera settled in Naples early on in his career, where the Caravaggesque style was quite prominent in the painters of the day.  Ribera exploited the technique in his own work quite a bit, and it added an element of darkness to his subjects.  However, it was also a much looser handling of painting than the typical Caravaggesque artist, which gave Ribera's work an added edge.
I love how real Ribera's martyrs are.  One particular painting of his gives that sense of realism and graphic violent agony like I haven't seen in other paintings of the time.  Many of Ribera's martyr paintings show the anguish of the torture just as it's about to happen, but his "Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew" is right as it is happening.  St. Bartholomew was executed by being skinned alive and crucified.  The painting depicts the agonizing torture as the executioner proceeds to carve the flesh off of his arm, revealing the muscles.  All the while, St. Bartholomew is fully conscious of the torture happening to him.  As the viewer, I am drawn back and forth from the bloody arm to the face of the saint.
Both Ribera and Velázquez had this awesome way of showing the humanity of their figures.  They never seemed to have blank, lifeless gazes on their faces in whatever setting they were in.  What makes Ribera's paintings of the martyrs, particularly this one, so compelling is that we can see the pain on their faces.  We can almost feel the pain ourselves of the flesh being cut and peeled off of our arm, but at the same time it is completely beyond our imagination.  After all, I quiver at the thought of a papercut, so there is no way I can know the pain of flesh being ripped off of me.  But the painting makes it so real and tangible, and so graphic that we can't help but cringe.  We also can't help but to feel pity and sorrow as we look upon the face of Bartholomew.  And I think that this painting is yet another that accomplishes what it was meant to do.  All of these religious pieces that we see were meant to be aids to devotion.  We were meant to look at the pain and horror of the gory execution, and to also look upon the face of the saint.  We were meant to be reminded by this and other paintings like it that these people were saints for a reason.  They went to their own death for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  We were all worth the life of God's Son, who gave it for us.  In turn, the martyrs understood that their own lives were worth giving up for the Gospel.  It is a sobering thought, and one that forces us to do our own soul-searching.  Not all of us will be called to give our life for the Gospel, thank goodness.  But would we be willing?  What are we willing to give up for the sake of Christ?

Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew
oil on canvas
c. 1624-30

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