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Ribera, Martyrdom of Saint Philip

Jusepe (José) de Ribera, The Martyrdom of Saint Philip, 1639, oil on canvas, 92 x 92 in. (234 x 234 cm), (Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris, Dr. Steven Zucker 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). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazzy music) Male: We're in the Prado in Madrid and we're looking at a Ribera. Female: It's The Martyrdom of Saint Philip. It's a very disturbing image. St. 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 Ruben's The Elevation of the Cross, sort of the preparation, the in motion progress of time toward the martyrdom. Male: It allows Ruben's, 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 is about to be martyred. But then what I find so extraordinary is the handling of the body of St. Philip, this series of concavities, of shadows, that are already deforming and 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. Female: Looking at his face, I see that influence of Caravaggio. He looks very humble. Male: A fisherman. Female: There's nothing idealized about really any of these figures. We have that Baroque stark contrast between light and dark. If you look at his left arm reaching up tied to the wood of the cross, you can see that that line of mottling there is just dark shadow right against the color of his flesh that's illuminated. Male: In fact, there's a kind of undulation which is the kind of undulation one would expect to see in Baroque architecture. Female: 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 harms reaching up. Male: That's exactly what I meant when I said that it felt hollow, that it was a kind of concavity. 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. Female: 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, whose 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 St. Philip himself is very, very close to us. 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. Male: 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 a kind of spiritual redemption. Female: I'm also really noticing the mother and child figure in the lower left. That somehow makes what's happening to St. Philip seem especially 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. (jazzy music)