Apostolo (c.1615-1619)

Ribera, Jusepe de (1591-1652)

Apostolo (An Apostle)
Oil on canvas, 62 x 49.5 cm
National GalleryLondon

This painting probably belonged to a series of Apostles. Although he was previously identified as Saint Judas Thaddaeus, usually portrayed with a club or an axe, he most likely represents either Saint Thomas or Saint Matthias, both of whose common attribute is a spear. Ribera painted several such series throughout his career – the most complete, dating from around 1630, is in the Museo del PradoMadrid. Apostle series were common in Europe from the sixteenth century, and Ribera may have referred to those by his predecessor El Greco.

The style of this painting suggests it is a youthful work and may therefore have come from one of Ribera’s earliest series. At least five other apostles, in the same bust-length format and similarly dated, are known and may have come from the same series. Ribera uses a very limited colour range in this painting and the paint is thickly applied, particularly evident in the highlights on the apostle’s forehead. His lined, ruddy complexion contrasts with the softness of his beard, and the gritty realism of the hand and dirty fingernails is typical of Ribera’s work. The apostle is imbued with astonishing humanity – Ribera must have based him on a real man. For a picture of such modest dimensions it possesses enormous power: the apostle fixes his eyes on us with an arresting gaze.

The painting was formerly attributed to  Velázquez and later to Ribera’s Sicilian contemporary, Pietro Novelli, known as ‘il Monrealese’. (NG)