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Art review: Ribera Art of Violence

02 November 2018

Nicholas Cranfield is braced for X-rated art of the Inquisition era

© Bilboko Arte Ederren Museoa-Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao.

Jusepe de Ribera’s Saint Sebastian Tended by the Holy Women, c.1620-23, on loan from the Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao

Jusepe de Ribera’s Saint Sebastian Tended by the Holy Women, c.1620-23, on loan from the Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao

THERE are so many treasures in the permanent collection at Dulwich, England’s oldest purpose-built gallery (1811), that it is sometimes easy to overlook other works when visiting any temporary exhibition.

In the new and pared-down hang with redecorated wall colours, the gallery has largely moved away from hanging paintings at double height to give a more spacious feel, a further significant shift from the wallpapering of the palaces of art which was so much a feature of taste in previous centuries.

Necessarily, this has meant that familiar pictures have been moved around. Guido Reni’s St Sebastian, for instance, one of several remarkable versions of the luckless martyr bound to a tree, no longer triumphs at the end of the enfilade, but hangs on a side wall, leaving two of Gainsborough’s ladies, the Linley Sisters, to hold our gaze as if they intend to stroll into view.

Visitors to this startling and well-researched X-rated winter show of the Spanish-born Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652) might do well to pause at two of the pictures in the permanent collection.

The first conveniently hangs to the right of the entrance to the exhibition itself. It has been previously, and unsatisfactorily, credited to the Flemish artist Hans Eworth (c.1520-74) or, even less likely, to Lucas de Heere (1534-84), both of whom were Protestant refugees in exile in England. The Judde Memorial is a surprising work, not least as it appears to be a marriage portrait.

William Judde and his wife stand either side of a cadaver of a young man laid out on a table in front of them, their fingers not quite touching as they hold a death’s head between them. “Lyve to die and die to lyve eternally”, reads one of the inscriptions on this panel of the 1560s. “Media vita in morte sumus”: in the midst of life, we are in death, as the Latin antiphon has it. The Elizabethan image is a good start for our consideration of the violence of death two generations later that Xavier Bray and Edward Payne explore.

We will come to the second picture from the permanent collection when we leave the exhibition space.

The first exhibit that catches our eye on parting the curtain and entering is in fact not a painting, although there are two powerful canvases, both depicting the martyrdom of St Bartholomew (Palazzo Pitti, Florence, and MNAC, Barcelona) in the room.

Rather, it is a marble head from a statue of Apollo (British Museum), dated to AD 120-140, a Roman copy of the Apollo Belvedere, which was once owned by Vincenzo Giustiniani (1564-1637), Ribera’s sometime patron in the Eternal City.

Erik Gould, courtesy of the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence.Inquisition Scene, after 1635, Jusepe de Ribera, on loan from the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence (Museum Works of Art Fund 56.060) As Sam Fogg’s recent exhibition in Mayfair “30 Heads” showed, there is something about a detached head, whether it is the result of iconoclasm or not, that leaves the viewer half uncomprehending.

Medieval heads, the subject of the Mayfair exhibition, did not have the benefit of knowing the classical tradition at first hand. Artisan craftsmen, working in churches and palaces, did not consciously copy previous images; stock figures of prophets, saints, and monarchs might show signs of individuality, but only rarely expressed the intimacy of form which we might expect from Greek art.

The classical statue of Apollo was found in 1489, but gained admirers only when Julius II became pope and brought it to display in Rome (1511). It was widely copied and cast in bronze by the aptly named “L’Antico” (Pier Jacopo Alari Bonacolsi, c.1460-1528).

The beauty of the figure was widely appreciated, and the aristocratic banker Giustiniani was, no doubt, rightly proud of his statue head in his house near the Pantheon, where his lodger Ribera would have seen the head.

Little enough is known of the Valencian-born artist’s early years, although more works have come to be associated with him since the 2011 show at the Prado, “The Young Ribera”. Edward Payne suggests that he arrived in Rome in 1606, the same year as Caravaggio fled into exile, while at the opening party a well-known writer on Caravaggio told me that she thought that some scholars now reckoned that he might have arrived as early as 1603, as an apprentice in Caravaggio’s workshop.

Both in Rome, where he was admitted to the Academy of painters in 1613, and then in Naples, which he had first visited in 1612 and where he settled permanently in 1616, the Valencian would have been surrounded by the much-talked-about paintings by the Lombard artist who had transformed Roman painting with his emphasis on light and dark and on stark realistic subjects.

Including statuary and objets de vertu was not a new trope among artists, but, in Ribera’s lifetime, the academic debate between form and substance had reached a new apogee, as sculptors and painters vied with each other to trumpet the superiority of their skill. Ribera was not the only artist to demonstrate his virtuosity in painting marble as well as the folds of drapery and worn flesh.

© Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona, 2018/Calveras/Mérida/SagristàJusepe de Ribera, Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew, 1644, on loan from the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, BarcelonaDr Bray has identified the fallen head of Apollo in the foreground of both dramatic paintings of the martyred Apostle Bartholomew, which suggests that the canvas is as much about that aesthetic dialogue as it is to provide a godly patron with an image of patient suffering in an age when the Counter-Reformation sought to emphasise the bloody cost of true Christian discipleship.

The earlier picture (c.1628), from Florence, usually hangs too high on the wall of the Royal Apartments in the Pitti Palace to be readily seen. Restored in 1970, 2011, and again in 2013, it is a vivid and troubling work that speaks to Tarantino.

Was it originally an altarpiece? The absence of attributes of the saint and of his halo and, more particularly, of any angelic messengers bearing the crown and palm branch suggests that it was, rather, a private commission.

The horizontal format of the painting offers an unflinching narrative account as one of the executioners sharpens the knife with which he will flay the saint. Like the thug who ties the saint’s feet, he leers at us, humiliating us with his teasing invitation to intervene. I was reminded of the Islamic State videos of executions which were cold-bloodedly released to the West. Only the sculpted head of Apollo, face down on the ground beneath the old man, suggests a degree of calm.

Identifiably the same sculpted head re-appears in the second version of the scene shown in this first room (Barcelona), and turns up again in the corner of an ambitious print that Ribera etched for Prince Emmanuel Philibert of Savoy, Prince of Oneglia, the newly appointed viceroy of Sicily, in 1624.

Ribera seems to have expected to gain the viceroy’s patronage (he was, after all, a nephew of Philip III of Spain and the ultimate authority in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies), but such hopes were dashed when the prince succumbed to the bubonic plague later that same year. Van Dyck had at the same time travelled to Sicily to paint the prince, with the same intention. That portrait is usually to be seen in Dulwich, but has been the centre of an exhibition this summer in Genoa.

In the last room, we come back to Apollo: not the sculpted head, but the vengeful god flaying the satyr Marsyas. The painting from Naples was painted in 1637 and is one of two painted that year of the same subject; the other is now in Brussels. The hubristic Marsyas howls animal-like in agony as Apollo takes his violent revenge on one who presumed to play music better than his.

The smooth skin of the god is almost that of a classical statue, while the earthiness of the satyr makes it appear as if he is growing out of the tree to which he has been tied. It is an agonised ending, first scripted by Ovid, to an absorbing exhibition.

The second room offers Ribera’s take on our five senses, with the sensory quality of skin, peeled back or gouged open, as a sixth sense. The third includes depictions of torture and executions in 17th-century Naples, offered as a comment on the administration of justice. In two drawings of an inquisition, the accused is strung up from a gibbet by his wrists that have been tied behind his back. A notary standing by seemingly takes down evidence. Or does he?

Dr Payne has found civic records for the criminal proceedings of the period in which offences and punishments are recorded. In the margins of those, we get to see, dated April 1596 and May 1614, the notaries exquisitely depicted the sentence being carried out as they had witnessed it. This certainly explains the context of Ribera’s art, but does it exonerate him of the charge that he was a man whose paintbrush was dipped in blood?

It has recently been calculated that of the 364 paintings securely attributed to Ribera, more than 300 depict religious scenes, most of them painted for their owners’ private devotions rather than for public altars. Dr Payne worked with Gabriele Finaldi on the 2016 catalogue raisonné of 157 drawings, of which approximately a quarter depict men tied to trees or hanging. Saints such as Albert, Sebastian, Andrew, and, of course, Bartholomew appear alongside the luckless scoundrels and criminals of day-to-day life. Surely this verges on an obsession.

Relief, such as it is, comes with an exceptional loan from Bilbao. St Sebastian Tended by the Holy Women (c.1620-23) offers hope in a violent world. Still tied to a tree, Sebastian is succoured by the widow St Irene, who begins gently to extract an arrow from the soldier’s thigh. Her companion stands by with a pot of ointment ready to offer her healing balm, something that we might all happily share.

Immediately to the left of the exit is the second work in the collection which I mentioned. An oil sketch by Rubens, Venus Mourning Adonis, it is thought to date to 1614, painted after he had returned from Rome to Flanders. It has been at Dulwich since its opening in 1811, and it, too, brings a moment of calm with its sheer beauty.


“Ribera Art of Violence” is at Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, London SE21, until 27 January 2019. Phone 020 8693 5254. dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

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