José de Ribera
Xátiva, Valencia, 1591 - Naples, Italy, 1652
Oil on canvas, 180.3 x 231.6 cm
Acquired in 1924
In the large canvas, the figure of the saint lies naked on the ground, one arm still suspended from the tree of martyrdom. The holy women Irene and Lucilla tend the saint, one of them removing the arrows and the other holding the jar of ointment. Two little angels bearing the crown and the palm of martyrdom hover above them. Without abandoning realism, Ribera is an unquestionable master of the dramatic use of light and shadow and, to judge by its style, this is one of his early works related to those commissioned by the viceroy of Naples, Duke of Osuna, kept in the collegiate church of Osuna and datable to the years 1616 to 1618. Beside the signature repainted before the restoration of the canvas the date "1631" was readable, yet the technique of the painting, smoother and more finished than those of the canvases produced in the sixteen thirties, proves the date must be mistaken. In all probability the date is 1621, which would situate the painting between the Osuna canvases and the other version of this theme kept in the Hermitage in St Petersburg, clearly dated 1628. Both renderings present a bold composition of the bodies, where the vertical line of the arm and the horizontal line of the body form a luminous angle that will be repeated in many of the painter’s following canvases. The marked foreshortening of the figures, studied in a number of masterly drawings, was adapted in several themes dedicated to Christian (Saint Sebastian, Saint Bartholomew) and pagan (Apollo and Marsyas) martyrdoms. This canvas has had an eventful history: in the seventeenth century it belonged to the Marquis of Leganés, who made a gift of it to King Philip IV. In turn, Philip IV left it on deposit at El Escorial monastery, where it remained until the French invasion, during which Joseph Bonaparte gave it to Marshal Soult, from whose descendants it was acquired by the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum. [A.E.P.S.]
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