Saint Paul the Hermit in Meditation
Now on view in the museum’s European galleries is a dramatic, half-length Saint Paul the Hermit in Meditation, on loan from a private collection. This rediscovered painting, which depicts the third-century saint in the wilderness, has been attributed to Jusepe de Ribera, called Lo Spagnoletto (baptized in Játva, Valencia, Spain, in 1591–died in Naples in 1652). Specialists who have studied the painting consider it close in date to the time of the artist’s arrival in Italy, placing it either in his short periods in Parma (about 1611/12) or in Rome (about 1615), before he moved in 1616 to Naples, where he made his career. While the dry, realistic still life of bread and dates—brought to Saint Paul by his raven—and the skull he holds look Spanish, the figure of the saint himself, the shaft of light traversing the canvas, and the landscape background demonstrate the influence of Central Italian painting on the impressionable young artist. Probably painted as a devotional work for a private patron, Saint Paul the Hermit was a subject of interest to religious orders such as the Carthusians or Carmelites and their supporters, who viewed the early-Christian Desert Fathers of Egypt as their spiritual ancestors. On exhibit in the same gallery are an etching and a red chalk study sheet by Ribera from the 1620s, allowing visitors to compare Ribera’s works in different media.
The painting is especially noteworthy in the context of a teaching museum. Just as newly emerged and reattributed youthful works of Gianlorenzo Bernini, in the 1970s and 1980s, and the juvenilia of Michelangelo Buonarroti, beginning in the 1980s, have been the subject of intense interest on the part of art historians, now works associated with the early career of Ribera have drawn their attention. In 2011 two exhibitions were organized of works by and attributed to the young Spaniard during his early years in Italy: one in Madrid during the summer and another in Naples during the fall. While there was not always consensus between the authors of the two exhibition catalogues about the trajectory of the artist’s early career, the discussions were lively and the authors’ differences tested the mettle of scholars, visitors to the exhibitions, and reviewers. It is our role, in a university museum, to be on the cutting edge of scholarship and to participate in the dialogues surrounding new subjects of research. The generous loan of Saint Paul the Hermit in Meditation is therefore doubly welcome in this context, permitting us not only to exhibit an atmospheric and moving religious work of the Counter-Reformation but also to present to students a painting that dates from the time of Ribera’s early experiences of Central Italian art.
Betsy Rosasco, Research Curator of European Painting and Sculpture