Saint Bartholomew, who was flayed alive, was a subject Ribera treated several times. Here the painter focuses not so much on the physical anguish of the saint as on his mystical experience. The unusual X-shaped composition pulls the viewer into the scene to share the profound emotion that passes in the moment when Bartholomew confronts his executioner with eyes lifted to God. Attention is drawn also to the sharpening of the knife; the position of the blade and whetstone forms a cross -- involving us not only in Bartholomew's martyrdom but also in Christ's sacrifice and crucifixion.
Ribera's thick, rich paints communicate a real physical presence. He uses the coarse bristles of his brush to texture the paint and give it tactile dimension. White hairs in the saint's beard are created by silvery filaments of paint. Around his eye, the pigments wrinkle like old skin.
Before settling in Naples, Ribera had spent some time in Rome studying the works of Caravaggio. Evident in this picture is the influence of Caravaggio's dramatic lighting, deep shadows, and unremitting realism, but the intensity of Ribera's religious fervor and his skillful handling of paint are his own.
Jusepe de Ribera
Spanish, 1591 - 1652
Jusepe de Ribera was born in 1591 in the town of Jativa, near Valencia, in Spain. It seems likely that Ribera first studied painting in Valencia, but there is no documentation for this or for an eighteenth-century biographer's assertion that the young painter studied with Francisco Ribalta (1565-1628). No traces of Ribera's artistic origins can be detected in his earliest known works.
Ribera may have come to Italy as early as 1608-1609, probably via Naples, then under the control of Spanish viceroys. He would then have passed through Rome on his way to Lombardy, where he is recorded by several contemporary sources as an already established painter. He is first documented in Parma in 1611, when he received payment for a Saint Martin and the Beggar (lost, known in copies) for the church of San Prospero. The artist is next documented in Rome in 1613 as a member of the Accademia di San Luca. The works of these years, such as the series of the Five Senses, reveal Ribera's intimate study of Caravaggio (1571-1610) and his followers. Ribera's naturalism is tempered, however, by a monumentality of the human figure based on careful study of Roman Cinquecento masters, such as Rapheal, whom Ribera himself cited as a touchstone of his art, as well as ancient sculpture. Throughout his life, Ribera also made reference to the refined and languid yet sculptural figure style of Guido Reni (1575-1642). Ribera's drawing technique, especially his chalk studies of individual figures, reflects his thoroughly Italian training and continued reference to Guido Reni.
Ribera is next documented in Naples in September 1616, when he married the daughter of the Neapolitan painter Gian Bernardino Azzolino, called il Siciliano (d. 1645). This marriage suggests prior contacts with Naples and in fact Ribera soon established himself as an important painter there. Aside from a brief trip to Rome in 1620-1621 to learn the art of etching, and another in 1626 to receive the Order of Christ of Portugal from Pope Urban VIII Barberini, Ribera is not known to have left Naples. The few etchings of the 1620s were probably executed to make his works better known and subsequently carried his fame into northern Europe. In this period Ribera's chief patrons were the Spanish Viceroys and nobility, who commissioned paintings for Spanish churches and collections. Now, as earlier, Ribera signed and often dated his works and carefully appended "español" to denote his Spanish nationality, an important factor in a city where patrons often declined to patronize local artists.
In the early 1630s Ribera's style began to change markedly. He moved away from sharp chiaroscuro toward a more luminous, golden overall tonality, became increasingly interested in color, and employed more expansive but balanced compositional schemas, without, however, completely abandoning his Caravaggesque roots. It is probably that Ribera participated in the growing preference for Bolognese art, brought to Naples from Rome with Domenichino's (1581-1641) commission of 1631 for the Treasury of San Gennaro in the Duomo. Ribera would have seen a wide range of works in Neapolitan collections, including those of Guido Reni and Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), which are also often cited as catalysts for the increasing painterliness of Neapolitan painting in the late 1630s and 1640s. The neo-venetianism current in Rome during the the 1620s and 1630s may also have played a role, reawakening Ribera's earlier interest in the colorism of the Venetian Cinquecento masters.
In the 1640s Ribera's production fell off sharply due to chronic illness, although his studio continued to turn out numerous works, many bearing his signature. He executed several large paintings for the Certosa di San Martino in Naples and continued to send works to Spain. His Immaculate Conception of 1635 for the Augustinas Descalzas of Salamanca was instrumental in establishing this iconography in Spain and is also one of his most Bolognese works. Ribera died in Naples in 1652.
Although essentially Italian in training and style, Ribera had great influence on painters in Spain and indeed throughout Europe. His modified Caravaggism informed the course of Neapolitan painting in the first half of the seventeenth century when many important artists passed through his studio, among them the Master of the Annunciation to the Shepherds and Aniello Falcone (1607-1656). The dominant personality in Neapolitan painting of the later seventeenth century, Luca Giordano (1634-1705), also began his career as a follower of Ribera.
The support is a twill fabric prepared with a thin, smooth reddish brown ground. Over this is a second, dark layer, black or possibly brown, with a rough texture that suggests application with a palette knife only under the main area of the composition, as visible in x-radiographs. The paint was manipulated skillfully to express different textures. Thin wispy strokes were used to modify the fluidly applied flesh tones, which also show the wet-into-wet application of black paint. A pointed object was dragged through the still-wet paint of the executioner's beard to create the texture of the hair. X-radiographs reveal two artist's changes. Saint Bartholomew's right forearm has changed position, with the previous arm left unfinished, without a hand underneath it. The fingertips of the right hand were also slightly shifted.
The original tacking margins have been removed, but cusping is present along all four sides. Two long tears in the fabric support have been repaired, which can be seen in x-radiographs. Aside from losses associated with these tears, there are only minor and carefully inpainted losses scattered throughout and some abrasion in the executioner's chest. The varnish is clear. The painting was treated most recently by Herbert Lank after 1983.
Bought in Italy c. 1810 by Richard Barré Dunning, Lord Ashburton (of the first creation) for his uncle-in-law George Cranstoun, Lord Corehouse [d. 1850], Corehouse, Scotland; by descent to Colonel Alstair Joseph Edgar Cranstoun of that Ilk by 1960; (his sale, Sotheby's, London, 6 July 1983, no. 30). Private collection, London; (sale, Sotheby's, London, 4 July 1990, no. 83); purchased by NGA.
 According to the Sotheby's catalogues, which identify Dunning simply as Lord Ashburton. The Scots Peerage, 9 vols., Edinburgh, 1904-1914: 2:598, gives his full name and lists his marriage to Corehouse's niece Anne Selby Cunningham in 1805.
The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew, 1634