Jusepe de Ribera: The Little Spaniard & His Vastness of Art

Jusepe de Ribera, an artist whom the Italians and Spaniards fought for, was an exceptional painter who took religious themes and through his knowledge of light and anatomy, depicted them as real-life instances.

Jusepe de Ribera

The seventeenth century beheld some of the greatest masters of painting, as I have explained in a detailed article on the Baroque era. However, the finest among them was Jusepe de Ribera, whose contributions can’t be neglected and had more disconcerting directness in his artworks than any other artist. His paintings speak modesty with concrete reality and immediacy, which rarely occur together in anyone’s artworks. We did know that during the entire seventeenth century, when the works by other Spanish artists couldn’t reach a few miles, Ribera was the artist whose paintings outstretched miles and miles outside the subcontinent. It was the issue of his nationality that both the Italians and Spaniards fought over, as both of them argued that he belonged to one and not the other. But, his designation, “Spagnoletto” became so famous that it almost became synonymous with his nationality as a Spaniard. A little problem is that his many commissions were not documented, and so is his life, so we do not have a detailed life of Ribera as others. And somehow, in the art world, Ribera’s name is lesser known today despite his stunning art. There is a substantial amount of Ribera’s work that has been imitated by other artists, mainly half-length figures of elderly male persons, whose names cannot always be traced. In the first half of the seventeenth century, this phenomenon was common to many of the great European painters, and perhaps it was initiated in Spain by El Greco and his Apostolados series. So, to introduce the whacking great artworks of Ribera to all of you, I am writing this article. Let’s begin!

Artist Abstract: Jusepe de Ribera.

I previously stated that there is very little information on the precise life of the artist. However, we do know a little about him through his artwork. For instance, Van Dyck and Jusepe de Ribera had one similarity between them, which intertwined their artwork. They both chose their models from the humbler walks of life, but Ribera expanded this to such an extent that he always tried picking patriarchs, prophets, and philosophers. In addition, you must note that all of this information, which we know today on Ribera, is from the parish records, notarial and court documents, correspondence, and bank payments, and from two pertinent observations. As I told you previously in the introduction, the birthplace of Ribera was controversial, but a few years ago, the discovery of his baptism records confirmed the nationality of the artist. Baptised in Jativa on February 17, 1591, he was from Valencia. The documented shreds of evidence confirmed that he was “Valentinus” and not from Lecce or Gallipoli, as Carlo Celano and Bernardo de Dominici would have us believe. Spanish painter Joseph (Jusepe) de Ribera (1591-1652) was a member of the Accademia di San Luca in Rome and a knight of the Order of Christ of Portugal. He ranked among the most innovative and important artists of his day. Many prominent religious institutions in Naples collected his works, including King Philip IV and the grandees of Spain. He was famous during his lifetime, as evidenced by the many copies and imitations of his works. Almost immediately after his death, the fame and fortune he hoped his art would bring his family diminished; his artistic legacy has since been misrepresented as well.

Copy of Jusepe de Ribera's Saint Thomas Self Portrait
Copy of Jusepe de Ribera’s Saint Thomas, Purported Self Portrait, by Hamlet Winstanley | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

We will learn more about the artist’s life in later sections.

ArtistJusepe de Ribera
BirthBaptized on February 17, 1591
DeathNot Known
GenreReligious Paintings
Famous PaintingsMartyrdom of Saint Philip and Baptism of Christ, 1643

Discussing the Life of Jusepe de Ribera.

Between November 1616 and February 1617, Jusepe married the daughter of Giovan Bernardino Azzolino, a Sicilian painter who lived in Naples and enjoyed wide prestige. At the time of his marriage, he was twenty-five, and Caterina Azzolino was not even sixteen. This information on Ribera’s life is from a document of May 1616, which also tells us about the artist’s arrival in Naples from Rome. Hence, the marriage of Ribera and Azzolino’s daughter marks the beginning of a new stage in the life of the Valencian painter. His first biographer, Giulio Mancini wrote a text in about 1620,

“In Naples, he married one of his (Azzolino’s) daughters and, doing various works with his usual felicitous manner, he was introduced to the Viceroy. As a result, he lives in that city, still spending his usual amount and that extra that a wife and honorable appearance at court necessitates; nonetheless, having left the wastrels (sparapani), given his speed of working together with his handling of paint (colorito) and good judgment, his earnings are enough to maintain the splendor of his life.”

Now, what we read is when he moved to Naples. We know that he started painting earlier on his trip to Naples, but it is not easy to distinguish the art style before and after his arrival. However, if we take a good reference of the artist’s life from the year 1652, the time when the artist’s death was finally commemorated, we see a significant clarity of Ribera’s activity in Italy before he arrived in Naples in 1616. And somehow, we also know that before he moved to Italy from Spain, he painted Saint Martin Sharing His Cloak With a Beggar for the Church of San Prospero in Parma. Also, note that this work has been lost, but its copies and etchings still remain. Though there has been intensive research, we still do not have knowledge of Ribera’s pre-Italian period, leaving us with very little information on him before 1611. However, we have a few facts about his life, which is close to negligible.

Saint Martin Dividing his Cloak (van Dyck)
Saint Martin Dividing his Cloak by Anthony van Dyck | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

First, the parish documents from Jativa that refer to Jusepe de Ribera and his family are trustworthy. However, some scholars, like August Mayer and Neil MacLaren, expressed restrictions on believing these baptismal and marriage documents. Some documents, which are discovered in Rome by Jeanne Chenault informed us that for a small period of time, Ribera lived with his two brothers, Jeronimo and Juan, names which also appear in the Baptism account from the Jativa, with birth years 1588 and 1593. Now, this explains to us his family members. Born in the family of a shoemaker, attributed to Simon Ribera, his father was married thrice, the first was Margarita Cuco, mother of Jusepe de Ribera. However, the literature suggests that Ribera went to Naples at a very early age and that his father was a shoemaker by profession but not Simon Ribera. In the book of Jusepe de Ribera 1591-1652 by Alfonso E. Perez Sanchez and Nicola Spinosa, two statements describe this thesis clearly,

“This thesis is supported by two parish documents in Naples, one of which cites, with no further qualification, a Simone Rivera and his wife, Vittoria Bricchi, who baptized their daughter there in July 1602, and the other of which cites a Simone de Ribera (possibly the same person), a Spaniard, who in June 1605 married the Spanish woman Vittoria Azevedo in the same city. When the Neapolitan scholar Lorenzo Salazar published these documents in 1894, it was known that La Spagnoletto’s father was named Simon, but the previously mentioned data from the parish archives of Jativa had not yet come to light.”

Kindly note that La Spagnoletto (the little Spaniard) is Ribera’s nickname, given to him.

Coming to the hometown of La Spagnoletto, Jativa was the home of the Borjas, or Borgias (Calixtus III and Alexander VI), among other distinguished and reputed families. It had an artistic patrimony with mind-blowing architecture, which blew away after Philip V ordered the demolition of the city in retaliation for the city’s favored Archduke Charles in the Spanish Succession War. Now, this demolition took away more than 200 altarpieces and paintings of primitive art, including the ones from Elias Tormo. Hence, what Ribera saw in his childhood as an inspiration to study arts had just disappeared. Works of artists like Jacomart, Rodrigo de Osona, Perea Master, Nicolas Falco, Yanez de la Almedina, and Juan de Juanes disappeared, which might have affected Ribera deeply.

Now, in 1724, Palomino’s Lives was published, where he stated that Lo Spagnoletto was the pupil of Francisco Ribalta. But whatsoever he informed doesn’t seem logical. He writes,

“Francisco Ribalta studied the art of painting in Italy; some say in the school of Annibale Caracci, but more in the works of Raphael.”

As a result of this passage, Palomino showed that the period seemed so dim to him, so he placed Francisco Ribalta’s death around 1600, making him older than Juan de Juanes, the artist who had so profoundly influenced local painting before Ribalta and who had passed away twenty years before Ribalta arrived in Valencia (Palomino estimated Juanes’ death in 1596 when he was barely fifty-six years old.) So this enormous distortion of facts takes us nowhere, and it is the only reason that we are mistrusting the Spanish Vasari concerning the information he gave us. Mayer and Tormo also give us an affirmative response to this question of linking Ribalta and Ribera through the evidence of style.

In the summer of 1616, Ribera left Rome to move to Naples and permanently shifted there. Not to forget, Naples was an important place for artists, and within just a span of a few days, all the significant artists and craftsmen of the highest caliber settled there. In 1606-7 and 1609, even Caravaggio stayed in Naples, leaving behind extraordinary works that profoundly influenced the young generation of painters, breaking with the prevailing norms of the late Mannerist and Counter-Reformation styles. As Caravaggio arrived in Naples, most of the artists, like Belisario Corenzio, and Girolamo Imparato were rapidly replaced. Hence, when Jusepe de Ribera came, he found favorable conditions for employment by the local nobility, particularly the Spanish aristocrats and entrepreneurs who lived in Naples.

Scannelli remarked these words on Ribera’s early paintings,

“In Rome, around this time (the second decade of the seventeenth century) rather mannered subjects painted by the artist called Lo Spagnoletto imitated truth successfully, but were as yet weak in technique and invention. The paintings are nearby, especially in Rome; the best are in the Palace of Prince Giustiniani where there are several works.”

One of the best paintings from 1616 is A Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew, which is in a private collection in New York. Another painting from this period is Derision of Christ, which is in Brera. The full-length figures have immediacy and scale similar to Caravaggio’s first-generation followers. There is a lightning formula with bright passages and heavy shadows merging into the uniformly dark background, which was also consistent in the paintings of Caravaggio and his followers. It combines late mannerist style, Caravaggesque lighting, visual accuracy, and a faithful imitation of surface texture.

Jusepe de Ribera The Mocking of Christ
Derision of Christ or The Mocking of Christ by Jusepe de Ribera | Source: Unknown Author / Via Nec Metu on Tumblr

Now, after we know quite a while about the artist, let us move towards his paintings.

Briefly Looking at Ribera’s Paintings.

Starting from the paintings of Saint Peter and Saint Paul and Saint James the Greater, Ribera composed these shortly after Naples for the church of the Gerolomini, a series including all the apostles. If you look at all of these paintings, you may find that the heads of the figures are covered with heavy and dense impasto applied with a coarse brush, similar to the technique used for Sense of Touch. In both artworks, the artist shows a bright illuminance, casting a light shadow in the background. There are brilliant contours with a dash of exceptional realism and tenebrism, in the painting. Another work, Saint Andrew With His Cross, also in Gerolomini, was painted some years ago. This work demonstrates a mature understanding of a naturalistically realized figure modeled with an understanding of a uniform pattern from a soft yet direct light source.

Next, in The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew, which is now in the Galleria Pallavicini, Rome, there is a concentration of energy and visual effect with an enhanced dramatic representation of the subject. It shows that Jusepe de Ribera had a good knowledge of anatomy with the finest painting skills, as he depicted the tensed muscles of the body. The clarity in draping, soft light casts, and darker shadows merged with a dark background are some additions to the painting, which makes it more emphasizing and sentimental. Ribera painted Saint Bartholomew twice, one in 1616-18 and the other in 1634, the former being absent (over the internet). In the later version, there is more clarity, a better depiction of human anatomy, having a variety of brushstrokes and textures such that the viewer is so involved with its psychological setting.

The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew, 1634 the Little Spaniard
The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew, 1634 by Jusepe de Ribera | Source: National Gallery of Art, United States

In the Lamentation Over the Body of Christ, a painting from the early 1620s, Ribera showed a great variation in the texture through surface treatment, and paint texture with close integration in the figural arrangement of the scene compared to the earlier paintings. The artist took the actual subject from Caravaggio’s famous prototype painting for the Oratorian Fathers of Santa Maria in Vallicella in Rome. In comparison to Caravaggio’s version, which shows the mourners more expressive in emotions, Ribera’s figures are more in a grieving and shocking state in a silent and stunned manner.

Jusepe de Ribera Lamentation Over the Body of Christ or The Deposition
Lamentation Over the Body of Christ or The Deposition of Christ by Jusepe de Ribera | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

By the mid-1620s, with the help of Gian Bernardino Azzolino, Ribera got an important commission to paint the monumental Saint Jerome and the Angel of Judgement. He painted it in the Trinita della Moache and signed it in 1626.

Saint Jerome and the Angel of Judgement by Jusepe de Ribera
Saint Jerome and the Angel of Judgement by Jusepe de Ribera | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

Another painting, The Martyrdom of Saint Andrew of 1628, which is in the National Museum, Budapest, is one of the most successful multi-figured compositions. The composition consists of rich and varied paint surfaces with virtuoso brushwork. Though it consists of intricate design, the individual elements appear in a vast and organized space, delineating the physical reality and evoking the spiritual meaning without betraying the Caravaggism techniques.

Jusepe de Ribera paintings The Martyrdom of Saint Andrew
The Martyrdom of Saint Andrew by Jusepe de Ribera | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

The 1630s saw the flowering of the artist’s career as he got some of the marvelous commissions at this time. A few paintings from this period are Saint Andrew, Bearded Woman, God the Father, and Venus and Adonis. All of these works display the full technical virtuosity and range of subject matter. At this time, Jusepe de Ribera’s patronage increased to very significant people from the King of Sapin, Duke of Alcala, and Count of Monterrey to the greatest patrons of Neapolitan art. In the early 1630s, Ribera used a brighter and more luminous color with more soft and open effects of light and atmosphere. It was due to the result of a preference for the classical Bolognese style during the 1620s.

One last painting of this article, which is really beautiful and complex of the Ribera’s career, is The Martyrdom of Saint Philip. The saint has a massive body positioned with the dynamics of Ribera’s early martyrdoms, surpassing the drama from all of his other paintings.

The Martyrdom of Saint Philip by Jusepe de Ribera
The Martyrdom of Saint Philip by Jusepe de Ribera | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

Final Words.

Jusepe de Ribera’s artworks are spellbinding, consisting of tenebrism, Carravagism, and classical Bolognese style with great choice of colors and texture. I have one last line to conclude this piece of work,

“If appreciating art is a sin, then I will be certainly a Lucifer when it comes to the Spanish art genius, Jusepe de Ribera.”


1. Jusepe de Ribera, 1591-1652, Alfonso E. Perez Sanchez and Nicola Spinosa.

2. Jusepe de Ribera lo Spagnoletto by Craig Felton and William B. Jordan.


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