The unflinching representations of brutality in Jusepe de Ribera's images of martyrdom is the focus of a new exhibition, the first in the UK focusing solely on this Baroque painter. Lilias Wigan reports.

Jusepe de Ribera, Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew, 1644, Oil on canvas, 202 x 153 cm, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona. ©Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona, 2018. Photo: Calveras/Mérida/Sagristà.

Jusepe de Ribera, Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew, 1644, Oil on canvas, 202 x 153 cm, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona. ©Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona, 2018. Photo: Calveras/Mérida/Sagristà.

Saint Bartholomew – one of Jesus’s 12 apostles from ancient Judea – was captured for converting the king of Armenia’s brother to Christianity. After he refused to worship a pagan idol, he was sentenced to being flayed alive and then beheaded. He is now recognised as the patron saint of tanners.

This gruesome account is one of many tales of saints’ martyrdom that gripped the attention of Spanish Baroque artist Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652), whose work is now the subject of an exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery entitled Ribera: Art of Violence, which runs until January 27th.

He earned the nickname lo Spagnoletto, or ‘the little Spaniard’, on arrival in Napes (then a Spanish province) from Rome in 1616, and one of his first commissions was a series of four saints – Bartholomew, Sebastian, Jerome and Peter – for the Duke of Osuna. Depictions of these martyred saints enrich the walls of the gallery in what is in the first ever solo presentation of Ribera’s work in the UK.

Jusepe de Ribera, Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew, 1624, Etching with engraving, Print Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

Jusepe de Ribera, Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew, 1624, Etching with engraving. © Print Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

The curators of the exhibition have circumvented the artist’s well known philosopher series of three-quarter length portraits, instead focusing on the extraordinary brutality of one aspect of his draughtsmanship.

In this rendition of Bartholomew’s demise, Martyrdom of Saint Bartholome (1644), the saint’s limbs are splayed, exploding to the edges of the canvas and thrusting into the foreground.

The victim’s ruffled brow and fixed gaze confront the viewer provocatively, his direct engagement embroiling us in the scene as the viewer becomes the viewed. The beholder of his gaze is now a guilty counterpart and Bartholomew a witness.

Jusepe de Ribera, Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew, 1644, Oil on canvas, 202 x 153 cm, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona. ©Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona, 2018. Photo: Calveras/Mérida/Sagristà.

©Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona, 2018. Photo: Calveras/Mérida/Sagristà.

Not only was the recording of torture and execution commonplace in Ribera’s time, but the art of the Catholic Counter Reformation called for dramatic images such as these to inspire piety. Theatrical contrasts of light and dark nod to Ribera’s Italian hero Caravaggio (1571-1610) – the master of chiaroscuro – and rouse intense emotions.

Ribera’s use of everyday life models and fierce realism encouraged viewers to identify with the suffering. The extraordinary detail of Bartholomew’s leathery skin is weak-tea in colour, as though the blood has already drained from his veins. His blanched and wrinkled flesh, as it is peeled from his forearm, resembles the pliancy of the cloth that falls from his twisted body.

His torturer, beetroot-faced by comparison, shows no signs of mercy as he scoops a grubby hand under the tissue, bearing a sideways, yellow grimace.

Jusepe de Ribera, Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew, 1644, Oil on canvas, 202 x 153 cm, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona. ©Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona, 2018. Photo: Calveras/Mérida/Sagristà.

Jusepe de Ribera, Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew, 1644, Oil on canvas, 202 x 153 cm, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona. ©Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona, 2018. Photo: Calveras/Mérida/Sagristà.

Beheaded and upturned on the ground, the fragmented idol portends to Bartholomew’s own fate. His unbound foot lies toe-to-toe with the sculpture.

The bust resembles the flawless ancient Greek marble ‘Apollo Belvedere’ – the God of music and arts. Its Classical style seems idealist when paired with Ribera’s gritty realism.

Jusepe de Ribera, Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew, 1644, Oil on canvas, 202 x 153 cm, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona. ©Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona, 2018. Photo: Calveras/Mérida/Sagristà.

Jusepe de Ribera, Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew, 1644, Oil on canvas, 202 x 153 cm, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona. ©Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona, 2018. Photo: Calveras/Mérida/Sagristà.

This is where Ribera’s mastery triumphs so brilliantly. His violent spectacle provokes all the senses, inviting an unnerving and complex engagement with the theme of suffering.

‘Ribera: Art of Violence’ is at Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, London until 27th January, 2019. Tickets £16.50/£8 via the Dulwich Picture Gallery website.