Jan 6, 2011
Ribera is perhaps the greatest and most under-studied painter in history. His skill at coaxing emotion out of the darkness, the texture of his painted skins, are far beyond the abilities of Caravaggio, his major inspiration. But for this Spaniard who spent most of his career in Naples, recognition is slow to come. To a large extent this is due to the almost universal fear of the city of Naples. Italians will not stay there after dark. They go for the world’s best pizza and espresso, then high-tail it out of there before the sun sets. It is chaotic, never cleaned up for tourists, full of pick-pockets and garbage, Antichrist to the Savior that is Florence. Even for art historians, it presents a daunting task. The archives are labyrinthine. Entry is barred without nepotistic passwords. But the treasures there are great, if you can survive the trials that bring you to them. And there, in that mysterious beautiful junkyard, shine some of art’s brightest diamonds, many of them by Ribera.
Ribera spent his entire career in Naples. Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652) was the son of a shoemaker from Játiva. So little is known about his early career, that he seems to have appeared out of nowhere in Parma in 1611. A document from that year is the earliest extant contract, stating that Ribera was paid for a painting of Saint Martin Sharing His Cloak with a Beggar, for the church of Saint Prospero. From 1613-1616, Ribera was in Rome, as he is listed as a member of the painter’s guild, the Academia di San Luca, in 1613. In 1616, he made what would be a permanent move to Naples. There he married Caterina Azzolino, a Sicilian painter’s daughter. Ribera had a large, prosperous studio in the Spanish-ruled Kingdom of Naples, with both a Spanish and Italian client base. His influence on Spanish art was through the importation of his works from Italy, and was also disseminated by his pupils, many of whom worked in Spain, including his most famous pupil, Luca Giordano, who painted at El Escorial.
This Pieta is signed and dated on the stone in the lower right corner of the canvas: “Jusepe de Ribera español 1633,” emphasizing his Spanish origins. This was not only a matter of national pride, but it also made clear that he was one of the ruling nationals in Naples. Paintings from this period show a lighter palette than Ribera’s earlier works, and illustrate a move away from the Caravaggesque and into a Caravaggio-influenced personal style that would become trademark Ribera. The two most distinctive features of Ribera’s work are the phenomenally accurate and detailed male bodies, as we see here in the body of Christ, and a striking lighting arrangement that suggests the pallor of moonlight, rather than the sun or a candle or torchlight that was employed by Caravaggio and most of the Caravaggisti.
It is particularly interesting (and helpful of the kind curators of this museum) that works by Caravaggio (Saint Catherine) and several of the Caravaggisti (those who emulated Caravaggio’s style) are on display in close proximity. Compare Caravaggio’s own painting, particularly the way the scene is lit, to Mattia Preti’s A Concert and Valentin de Boulogne’s David with the Head of Goliath. All have a spotlight effect, but the way that figures are portrayed and the drama of the emergence from shadow into light are different in each.
Consider which you find most effective. Most art historians consider Mattia Preti and Valentin de Boulogne as more derivative, less original artists than Caravaggio and Ribera; skilled artists but not geniuses. But this comes down largely to personal preference. In art, there is no such thing as an objective better and worse. Such decisions are at the discretion of each individual viewer. But it is worth noting the arguments made by critics and historians to back up their opinions. Caravaggio launched what became an international trend in what is often called Tenebrist painting (from the Latin for “shadow”). It is easy to see how his genius would be distinguished, when no one before him had painted anything like what he did, and hundreds of artists flocked to see his paintings and emulate their style. Of those who did so, Ribera emerged to paint not just in the style of Caravaggio, but rather took the seed of inspiration planted by Caravaggio and created his own, instantly-identifiable art form which, in turn, served to inspire legions of his own followers. Mattia Preti and Valentin de Boulogne, by contrast, led fruitful careers and are still much admired, but they neither established, nor perfected, a new trend or movement.
This painting belonged to the Marqués de Heredia, and is one of a number of versions of the Pieta, the moment after the dead Christ is taken off the cross, and his mother Mary is given a brief private moment to mourn her son, before he is whisked away for burial. It is one of the most popular scenes for artists to depict, because it offers the chance to show off their skill not only in painting a complete, nearly-nude human body (that of the dead Christ), but also an emotion-filled face, that of the weeping Mary. It is also considered one of the most difficult Biblical scenes to paint well, because most versions show the fully-grown Christ draped across the lap of his mother—a potentially awkward pose that risks making Mary look miniscule, if handled improperly. The most famous Pieta is probably the marble sculpture by Michelangelo, which is on display in Saint Peter’s in Rome, which Ribera would certainly have seen. In each version of the Pieta that Ribera painted, he used the same models for Mary, Christ, and Mary Magdalene, though the poses in each are slightly different. Ribera has creatively chosen to avoid the whole problem of Christ’s corpse on Mary’s lap, by laying Christ out before Mary, rather than upon her. For this reason, the scene is sometimes called a Lamentation rather than a Pieta.
To get a good sense of Ribera’s work, one must brave the untouristy atmosphere and fantastic pizza of Naples. But this Pieta, displayed in the sunshine of the welcoming capital of Spain, makes Ribera’s work logistically accessible, and his genius easy to see. Nowhere else is chiaroscuro, the dramatic play of light emerging from darkness, so brilliantly executed. Shadows are the webbing with which Ribera weaves a beautiful cacophony of darkness.