Jusepe de Ribera's Classical Subjects

Jusepe de Ribera was a Spanish Baroque painter who worked in Naples (under Spanish rule since the 15th century) for most of his career.  After his move to Naples around 1620 he was known as Lo Spagnoletto (the little Spaniard) and followed in the Caravaggisti manner of painting, which meant that the Italian painter Caravaggio had an enormous impact on his style.  Caravaggio painted with extreme darks and lights in a style known as tenebrism, and was known for painting subjects taken from life who were never shown as idealized figures.  Caravaggio lived in Naples for a brief time in the early 17th century and after his stay much of Neapolitan painting followed his lead in both style and subject matter.

Ribera took Caravaggio's techniques a step further and became well known for portraying figures in an extremely naturalistic style.  Rather than idealizing his models Ribera focused on things such as wrinkles, sagging flesh or grotesque figures.  He was influenced also by Caravaggio's use of tenebrism; painting compositions with dark backgrounds and a strong contrast between light and dark. Ribera always created figures that were highly individualized, such as his portrait representing the Greek mathematician Archimedes. 

 Archimedes, Jusepe de Ribera, 1630, Museo del Prado, Madrid

As we can see in a detail of this painting below, Ribera emphasizes every deep wrinkle in the face of the older model that he uses for Archimedes.  He was less interested in painting the idealized faces associated with the Italian Renaissance and instead was interested in his sitter's character, personality and individuality.

 detail of Archimedes, Jusepe de Ribera, 1630

While he painted many Biblical scenes and Catholic saints, Ribera was also the first Spanish painter to take up subjects derived from classical mythology such as his Drunken Silenus (below) and Apollo Flaying Marsyas (not shown) among others.

Drunken Silenus, Jusepe de Ribera, 1626, Museo Nazionale de Capodimonte, Naples

The Drunken Silenus was one of Ribera's first signed and dated works and is characteristic of his early style in the manner of Caravaggio.  In Greek mythology Silenus was the son of Pan and the foster father of Bacchus.  Both Bacchus and Silenus are known for their enjoyment of wine and merriment.  However unlike the regal god Bacchus, Silenus is shown as someone to be loathed or pitied and could be used as an allegory for gluttony.  

In mythology Bacchus granted the king Midas the wish to turn objects to gold after Midas treated his drunken foster father Silenus with kindness.  In Ribera's painting the obese Silenus is shown nude and is surrounded by figures with grotesque features.

 Ixion, Jusepe de Ribera, 1630, Museo del Prado, Madrid

Another example of Ribera's classical subject is in his work Ixion.  In Greek mythology, Ixion spawned the centaurs.  After Ixion tried to seduce Juno (the Queen of the Gods), his punishment was to be tied to a wheel and be turned for eternity. In this painting a cruel looking Satyr has just chained Ixion to the wheel.  As in Drunken Silenus  and Apollo Flaying Marsyas  Ribera paints every detail of these gruesome scenes and creates a compelling image filled with drama.  Here (as in his other work Titus) the main figures are shown being turned upside down which adds to the dramatic feeling of the overall composition.

While best known for his powerful religious paintings created in Catholic Italy and Spain after the Counter-Reformation, the viewer can see that the Classical themes of Jusepe de Ribera are every bit as emotional and dynamic.

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