Studio of Jusepe de Ribera (Játiva, Valencia 1591 - Naples 1652)

Saint Paul the Hermit

oil on canvas
117.8 x 97.1 cm (46⅜ x 38¼ in)


Provenance: Spanish Noble Family;
SAR Infante José-Eugenio de Baviera and SAR Infanta Maria-Teresa de España, daughter of King Alfonso XII of Spain;
thence by descent.

This arrestingly poignant and compelling painting of Saint Paul the Hermit has an illustrious history, being formerly in the collection of the Infanta Maria-Teresa de España (1882-1912), the middle child of King Alfonso XII of Spain and his second wife Maria Christina of Austria. Maria-Teresa was a Spanish Princess by birth and a member of the House of Bourbon and, through her marriage to Prince Ferdinand of Bavaria, she became a Princess and Duchess of Bavaria and a member of the House of Wittelsbach. They had four children of whom Infante José-Eugenio de Baviera (1909-1966), the inheritor of the present painting, was the second eldest. The painting may at one time have hung in the Palacio Real in Madrid, which was occupied by the Spanish Royal Family until 1931.

The composition of Saint Paul the Hermit repeats, with some variants such as the omission of the bread, the painting by Jusepe de Ribera in the Prado, Madrid, known also through a workshop replica in the Gemäldegalerie, Pommersfelden. Professor Nicola Spinosa has proposed the attribution of the work to Bartolomeo Bassante (1618-c.1650), a little-known Neapolitan artist who produced other copies after Ribera, one of which, signed with his initials, is in the Pinacoteca d'Errico, Matera. Professor Riccardo Lattuada has proposed an alternative attribution to Hendrick van Somer (1615-1685), a Dutch painter active in Italy and a distinguished pupil of Ribera in Naples. The startling realism and dramatic intensity with which Paul the Hermit is depicted suggests that the painter, whether Bassante, van Somer or an as yet unidentified artist, sought to emulate the work of Ribera, one of the greatest artistic geniuses of the Counter Reformation.

In a style that echoes many of Ribera’s compositions, the figure of Paul the Hermit dominates the canvas and is illuminated against a dark background. This tenebrist lighting focuses the eye on the Saint’s heavily lined face and emaciated figure. The curve of his spine and the sinewy muscles standing out against his fleshless back and arms are articulated with impressive and almost gruesome accuracy. He bends awkwardly forward, wearing only a loincloth of hair, and clasps his wrinkled and weathered hands in prayer before an open book and a skull. Such meditation was the sole focus of Paul the Hermit’s life after escaping persecution in the third century AD and retreating to the Egyptian desert. He lived to be more than one hundred years old and his only visitor was a raven which brought him bread each day, allowing him to survive. The skull propped in front of him is a ghoulish reminder of the brevity of human life and the loincloth and rope tied at his waist symbolise his contrition.

Devotional images of penitential saints in meditation abounded in Italy during the seventeenth century and feature strongly in Ribera’s oeuvre. The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, has an impressive collection of the artist’s work, which includes paintings such as St. Onuphrius of 1637. In a similar manner to Saint Paul the Hermit, the elderly saint, who was also a hermit in the Egyptian desert, is depicted from the waist up with his hands clasped. His wild appearance with his chest covered in hair and a loincloth of leaves fits the traditional iconography of the saint. The work, painted in Ribera’s later period, when he tended towards a lighter palette and looser brushwork, still carries the hallmarks of dramatic illumination and a sensual and humanistic treatment of the subject that is reminiscent of the present work. An earlier painting by Ribera in the Hermitage, depicting Saint Jerome visited by an angel, makes full use of his signature lighting contrasts to imbue the composition with intensity and spiritual force.

Bassante, in the few works that can be confidently attributed to his hand, captures the vigorous draughtsmanship, tenebrist lighting and expressive naturalism that is emblematic of Ribera’s work. His painting, Adoration of the Shepherds, in the Museu de Arte de São Paulo, is a highly theatrical piece, so like the master that it was originally attributed to Ribera, and afterwards to Bassante. Another particularly fine example of his work is Saint Catherine of Alexandria in the Palazzo Madam, Torino, which has been attributed by Professor Spinosa and several other scholars to the artist based on stylistic reasons.¹ A ghostly pale light shines on Saint Catherine and she is silhouetted against a dark background. The sheen on her garments and the glint of the sword held vertically in her hand are finely detailed and the painting blends naturalism with classicism in a manner that is typical of Bassante’s works from the 1640s, when he began to adopt an increasingly academic approach.

His later works are characterised by more concise and sharper outlines, smoother skin tones and elegant, slightly rigid drapery, signalling a move away from Ribera towards classical ideals. Saint Paul the Hermit, if by Bassante, would therefore seem to be an earlier work, characterised by a roughness and saturation of emotion and religiosity that is appropriate to the subject.

Van Somer’s works, like Bassante’s, are difficult to reconstruct as there are too few surviving ones that can be securely identified by either hand. Van Somer appears to have primarily painted intimate images of saints, in which they are generally posed bust or half-length against a dark background, like the present picture. His painting of Saint Jerome, depicting the saint lifting his head at the sound of the trumpet of final judgment, which appears at the upper left of the composition, has parallels with Saint Paul and the Hermit, particularly in the portrayal of the elderly man’s facial features. His overall appearance is less haggard than Saint Paul’s, however, and the shadowing of his skin is not as strikingly detailed. Van Somer painted a number of versions of Saint Jerome; another example, which although a moving and sympathetic image, revealing the entirety of the saint’s body as well as the landscape in which he rests in an unusual manner, lacks the depth of feeling found in the present work.

The famed Ribera was born the second son of a shoemaker in Valencia. He may have studied with the city’s leading artist, Francisco Ribalta (c.1565-1628), but the documentation of his early life is sketchy and imprecise. By 1611 his presence was recorded in Parma, two years later he was in Rome attending the Accademia di S. Luca and in 1616, he moved to Naples where he spent the rest of his life. His reputation was quickly secured in Naples and he began executing commissions for important patrons such as Cosimo II, Grand Duke of Tuscany and the Viceroy of Naples, the 3rd Duque de Osuna. Ribera became renowned as an engraver as well as a painter and achieved considerable financial success in both media. Throughout the following decades his prestige grew and he was awarded major commissions in Naples and elsewhere. Several of his paintings were sent to Spain and although Ribera never returned to his homeland, he strongly identified as a Spanish artist, frequently signing his paintings ‘hispanus’. In the 1640s, his health began to deteriorate and he fell into economic difficulties. Ribera continued to paint, with the assistance of a large workshop, until his death in 1652. He exerted considerable influence in Italy and Spain and was known through his paintings and prints as far as central and northern Europe. His students included Francesco Fracanzano (1612-1656), Aniello Falcone (1607-1656), Salvatore Rosa (1615-1673) and Luca Giordano (c.1632-1705) and his work directly inspired many others, such as Bassante and van Somer as discussed above.

Bassante was born in 1618 and at the age of ten he moved to Naples and studied with Pietro Beato, a little known painter, whose niece, Angela Formichella, he married in 1636. In his Vite de’pittori, scultori ed architetti napolitani, Bernardo de Dominici related that Bassante was a follower and imitator of Ribera, his imitations being so well-painted that it is hard to distinguish them from the originals.

Van Somer proves even more elusive a figure as there is little biographical information about him, except that he was born in Amsterdam and moved to Naples, where his nickname was Enrico Fiammingo. Both he and Bassante grew to be distinguished and accomplished artists, as their paintings attest, and both provide equally interesting possibilities as to the identity of the painter of Saint Paul and the Hermit.

¹ N. Spinosa, ‘Bartolomeo Bassante. Santa Caterina d'Alessandria,’ in Civiltà del Seicento a Napoli, exhibition catalogue, Naples, 1984, p. 189.