Last year my wife and I were wandering around the backstreets of Salamanca when we were confronted by a minor miracle. The iron gates of the convent of the Agustinas Descalzas — generally chained and padlocked — were ajar. Quickly we slipped through before they closed again.
Inside was a vast 17th-century church, slightly dusty and completely deserted. On the high altar and the walls of the transepts were paintings by Jusepe de Ribera, a great master who is today half-forgotten. His art has seemed perhaps too gory, too dark — in short, too Catholic — to appeal to British tastes. But that may be about to change: next week, a Ribera exhibition opens at Dulwich Picture Gallery, the first ever seen in this country. In an age that adores the art of Caravaggio, Ribera might well be a hit.
That evening in Salamanca I was particularly struck by a picture of San Gennaro, or Januarius, patron saint of Naples, in glory. He was sailing on a shallow cloud, wearing full bishop’s regalia, and flanked by a cohort of cherubim. Below was Vesuvius smoking in the background.
Salamanca, in fact, was a surprising place to come across Ribera (indeed the pictures there had been dispatched across the Mediterranean). Although he is generally described as ‘Spanish’, and added the word ‘espanol’ to his signature, Ribera (1591–1652) was, for almost all his career, based in southern Italy. It therefore makes more sense to think of him as a citizen of the long-vanished Kingdom of Naples. But because this was then ruled by Spain, the Spanish Viceroys (one of whom commissioned the altarpieces for Salamanca) were among Ribera’s most important patrons.
He was born in the province of Valencia, but moved to Italy when very young. His formative years were spent in Rome, a few years after Caravaggio had painted a succession of masterpieces there. In 1616 Ribera moved on to Naples, where he spent the rest of his life.
The exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery is billed Ribera: Art of Violence — and not without reason. Among the artist’s most memorable images are depictions of grisly martyrdoms and scenes of mythological shock horror such as Tityos, an unfortunate Greek giant, having his liver devoured by vultures (a strand of intestine dangling from a voracious beak).
His ‘Apollo and Marsyas’ (1637), centrepiece of the Dulwich exhibition, gives more information about the process of flaying alive than some spectators might like to see. The god has made an initial incision in the satyr’s lower leg, and is beginning methodically to peel back his skin. Understandably, but at the same time grotesquely, Marsyas screams — his mouth wide open, head upside-down.
This is more gruesome even than Caravaggio at his most blood-spattered. But there was another side to Ribera and his Neapolitan contemporaries. The critic David Sylvester once pushed the elderly Henry Moore, in a wheelchair, around an exhibition of painting from Naples at the Royal Academy. They stopped in front of a Massacre of the Innocents, filled with butchered babies. Moore looked hard at this array of corpses and severed limbs, then exclaimed: ‘But it’s painted so tenderly!’
That’s true of Ribera. In his painting of the aged St Andrew, every wrinkle and crease in the old man’s skin, the fleeciness of his white and thinning hair, the soft flesh of his arms: all these are painted with amazing accuracy but also — there is no other word for it — gentleness. He is a wonderfully sympathetic observer of ageing, poverty and — in a memorable depiction of the drunken Silenus — substance-abuse and obesity.
When Domenichino, a classicising painter from Bologna, arrived in Naples, Ribera was scathing. ‘Domenichino is not a painter,’ he exclaimed, ‘because he does not work from nature!’ (Close observation of a living model was the source of Caravaggio’s revolutionary naturalism.)
Domenichino was given the job of painting the Chapel of San Gennaro in the cathedral, which so outraged Ribera and his friends that they drove the interloper away with death threats. Eventually, Domenichino returned to Naples but soon died — poisoned, at least in the opinion of his widow (nothing was ever proved).
Ribera himself painted the last picture for the chapel. The saint strides suavely out of a fiery furnace, clad, as always, in robes and mitre and — so far — unmartyred, while the would-be executioners tumble over in dismay. Despite his criticisms, Ribera’s picture owes its lighter colours and complex composition to Domenichino’s influence, while — squaring a stylistic circle — still retaining Caravaggio’s sensational realism. Every face looks like a portrait.
On the day I visited this chapel, the miraculously liquefied blood of San Gennaro was being displayed. It really was liquid; you could see it rippling in its vial when the priest showed it to the faithful. Even so, I was more interested in Ribera’s altarpiece. Poisoner or not, he painted marvellously — and that is also a miracle of sorts.