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.
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