This work is a superb monumental painting by Jusepe de Ribera, a Spanish born artist who spent his entire career in Italy. Ribera was one of the most important figures in European painting in the seventeenth century and one of the major artists of the Counter-Reformation.
This painting is a seminal autograph work by Ribera from the early 1620s. This painting is the primary version of an often repeated composition, with no fewer than seven other versions known to have come from Ribera’s busy studio. It exemplifies his blending of various styles such as Spanish and Caravaggesque tenebrism with an Emilian approach to Baroque realism that Ribera absorbed looking at the works of Caravaggio in Rome and Naples, paintings by Guido Reni and the Carracci in Rome, and Correggio in Parma. It is a complex seven-figure religious composition that was most likely commissioned to decorate the high altar of the Church of San Lorenzo in Lucina, Rome, a church that during Ribera’s time was under Spanish patronage. Ribera also lived near this church.
Ribera here depicts the martyrdom of St Lawrence, which took place in Rome during the persecution of Christians by the Emperor Valerian on 10 August 258 CE. According to traditional accounts, St Lawrence was custodian of the treasure and relics of the church, including the Holy Grail. Valerian demanded that St Lawrence hand over these riches, which he refused to do. He then survived considerable beating and torture but was ultimately martyred by being roasted alive on a gridiron. Ribera here depicts the moment when St Lawrence has clearly accepted his fate; and shows the youthful saint already spiritually transported heavenwards in a dialogue with God.
It is an extraordinary masterpiece, of vigorous execution and startling realism which characterizes early seventeenth century European painting.
Text by Laurie Benson
© National Gallery of Victoria, Australia