The Spanish painter Jusepe de Ribera, known as Spagnoletto, long worked in Naples for the viceroy, nobility, churches and monasteries in the city. This work, painted when the artist was also engaged in the decoration of the Charterhouse of San Martino, is one of the masterpieces of seventeenth-century portraiture.
The missionary rests one hand on the mane of a lion, rendered by the artist with rapid touches of the brush. The hands and face stand out against the dark background and his black garments, heightened by the whiteness of the cuffs and collar. The deep shadows under the chin and on the face and the use of a denser impasto in the brighter zones make the portrait extraordinarily alive.
The identity of the man is not known. The tame lion may suggest a mission in distant lands, or be a symbol of Christ and therefore represent the Company of Jesus, of which the sitter was a member.