BEYOND THE SKIN – ‘The Martyrdom of St Bartholomew’ by Jusepe De Ribera (1634)

BEYOND THE SKIN – ‘The Martyrdom of St Bartholomew’ by Jusepe De Ribera (1634)

 Spagnoletto tainted his brush with the blood of all the sainted’ – Lord Byron (Don Juan, xiii. 71)

The brilliant José de Ribera is renowned for his art of violence and human suffering, of victims and executioners – a subject popular during the Counter Reformation period that aimed at inspiring piety. Born in Játiva, Valencia, Ribera built most of his career in Naples, southern Italy. It was here that he earned the affectionate nickname ‘Spagnoletto’ or ‘the little Spaniard’. Ribera also enjoyed several international patronages from the royalty as well as the Catholic Church. He revolved his style around the mysticism of religion and the intense drama of the Baroque depicting brutal martyrdoms effortlessly through theatrical line and light.

Ribera was particularly captivated by the unflinching execution of St. Bartholomew. It formed one of his master triumphs during the seventeenth century. The subject served to manifest his mastery to provoke all senses in providing an unnerving encounter with racked pain.

One of the Twelve Apostles of Christ, St. Bartholomew was a native of Cana in Galilee and preached the Good News in Asia Minor, Armenia and/or India. Having cured the ‘moonstruck’ daughter of King Polemius, his missionary zeal angered the local priests and authorities. They incited King Astrages, Polemius’ brother to arrest the apostle. Astrages ordered him to offer sacrifices to the idols of the land, in particular the king’s idol – Baldach. The apostle courageously smashed the pagan god. His action outraged the King who commanded that Bartholomew be tortured to death. Thus the apostle was crucified, flayed and beheaded for the cause of his faith.

The fallen idol

Ribera presents this narrative through his painting in a tingling and thriving manner. His work depicts the final moments of the apostle before he is to be flayed alive. Stripped of every dignity, the saint’s arms and limbs are splayed even as his body, reversely tied to a tree, appears to explode through the edges of the canvas.

Adhering to the description in the Golden Legend, Ribera’s Bartholomew is distinguished by his crisped black hair, thick beard, fair skin, straight nose and wide eyes. The apostle looks at us helplessly while the sadistic executioners emerge out of the darkness to flay the martyr with merry delight. The capsicum-faced killer is seen digging his grubby hand into the peeling flesh of the forearm while exchanging a sly grin with his partner on the other extreme. Mysterious onlookers in the background stand witness to this terrorising trial.

The stomach-churning execution draws our attention to several artistic details. Notice the life-like strain in the apostle’s muscle, the enlarged lips of the wound, the pulsating flesh torn from the vein, the quivering fibres and the tensioned ribs. Ribera makes us sense the absolute effort of the executioners to counterbalance the saint’s muscular body. Observe the play of the shrilling shadows hiding in the hollows of the muscles and the brilliant light, subtly yet starkly bathing the twisted torso of the apostle. The psychological drama between the executioner and the victim encourages us to identify with the saint’s suffering. We can feel the strength and perceive the pain.

The gaze conveying the message

The ruffled brow, the open mouth, the piercing gaze and the petitioning hand of the apostle confronts the viewer with a cause. The martyr encourages us to engage with the essence of the narrative. Notice that his open left hand, in a sweeping curve, gestures to the decapitated fallen idol of Baldach while his unbound foot appears toe-to-toe against the sculpture. Thus the apostle, in his final moments, vehemently voices the lifelessness of any and every idol beckoning us to go beyond their ‘marble-masked beauty’ in order to pursue and persevere in our soul-stirring faith – for true beauty is not only skin deep but beyond the skin!

Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday between 9am to 5pm. For a guided tour please contact: 022 – 29271557

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