Jusepe de Ribera, The Martyrdom of Saint Philip

Jusepe (José) de Ribera, The Martyrdom of Saint Philip, 1639, oil on canvas, 92 x 92″ / 234 x 234 cm (Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid)

The English Romantic poet, Lord Byron, wrote that the artist, “Spagnoletto [the little Spaniard] tainted / His brush with all the blood of all the sainted” (Don Juan , xiii. 71).

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:03] We’re in the Prado in Madrid, and we’re looking at a Ribera.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:06] It’s “The Martyrdom of Saint Philip,” and it’s a very disturbing image. Saint Philip is being raised up on a cross to be crucified, and so we have this moment of — actually, we often have in Baroque art, for example Rubens’ “The Elevation of the Cross” — sort of the preparation, the in-motion progress of time toward the martyrdom.

Dr. Zucker: [0:29] It allows Rubens, or in this case Ribera, to emphasize the physicality of the image, that is, look at the muscles, look at the strain, look at the effort to counterbalance the weight of this man that’s about to be martyred, but then what I find so extraordinary is the handling of the body of Saint Philip.

[0:49] This series of concavities, of shadows that are already deforming, distorting the body even before he’s raised up. You can feel the body’s strength. You can see the muscles of the legs, of the arms, but you can also see a kind of hollowness, especially in the torso, that makes him feel so vulnerable.

Dr. Harris: [1:09] Looking at his face, I see that influence of Caravaggio. I mean, he looks very humble. He looks very…

Dr. Zucker: [1:16] A fisherman.

Dr. Harris: [1:17] There’s nothing idealized about really any of these figures, and we have that Baroque stark contrast between light and darks. If you look at his left arm reaching up, tied to the wood of the cross, you can see that that line of modeling there is just dark shadow right against the color of his flesh that’s illuminated.

Dr. Zucker: [1:37] In fact, there’s a kind of undulation, which is the kind of undulation one would expect to see in Baroque architecture.

Dr. Harris: [1:43] I’m also noticing how, as we look at it here, that the composition is kind of a half-circle on the bottom of the canvas, also echoed in his arms reaching up.

Dr. Zucker: [1:54] That’s exactly what I meant when I said that it felt hollow. That it was a kind of concavity, and I think that that really in a sense emphasizes the vulnerability and the way in which his body is not under his own control. In fact, the figure on the right seems to be pulling his legs out from under him, so he really is about to lose his balance and is about to be at the complete mercy of his torturers.

Dr. Harris: [2:16] And there’s that thing that we always see in Baroque art, too, of intentional foreshortening, of figures who move out into our space. That figure in red that you just mentioned, his torso is foreshortened, who comes out into our space. The figures on the left who are pulling up the ropes move out into our space. The figure of Saint Philip himself is very, very close to us.

[2:38] There’s not a lot happening in the background. All we’ve got is classical columns that maybe signify the end of the classical era and the beginning of a Christian era.

Dr. Zucker: [2:47] There’s also an interesting contrast between the lower part of the canvas — which is so dense with this terror, so dense with this violence — and then the sort of open, perfect, beautiful blue of the sky above, which I’m assuming is kind of spiritual redemption.

Dr. Harris: [3:03] I’m also really noticing the mother and child figure in the lower left, that somehow makes what’s happening to Saint Philip seem especially…

Dr. Zucker: [3:13] Cruel. Yeah.

Dr. Harris: [3:13] …tragic somehow. Something about the Baroque realism, the everyday-ness, the way that Baroque artists recreate these religious scenes in a sort of vernacular language.

[3:25] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Jusepe de Ribera, The Martyrdom of Saint Philip," in Smarthistory, November 25, 2015, accessed July 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/jusepe-de-ribera-the-martyrdom-of-saint-philip/.