Pietà (early 1620s)

Ribera, Jusepe de (1591-1652)

Pietà (The Lamentation over the Dead Christ)
early 1620s
Oil on canvas, 129.5 x 181 cm
National GalleryLondon

Ribera captures the moment when Christ’s lifeless body is laid out after it has been brought down from the Cross. A solemn Saint John the Evangelist, dressed in red and green, gently supports Christ’s elegant corpse. Christ’s pallor is striking – his lips and skin are turning grey-blue – and his body seems to radiate light, as does the white sheet beneath him. Christ’s hands and feet bear the wounds he suffered by being nailed to the Cross and his brow is smeared with the blood he shed from wearing the crown of thorns, a symbol of Christ’s Passion. Recent cleaning of the picture revealed the crown just behind Christ’s right forearm (barely visible except in good light) and some masonry behind the figures, intended to represent the tomb in which Christ’s body will shortly be laid to rest. In the centre, in blue, is the Virgin Mary, who joins her hands in prayer and looks down at her son in extreme sorrow – a tear is rolling out of her right eye. The young woman bent over Christ’s legs is Mary Magdalene: she brings her face close to Christ’s feet, as if about to kiss his wounds. Her golden tresses cascade over her back evoking the biblical passage in which she used them to wipe Christ’s feet in the house of Simon (Luke 7: 36–8). The scene is one of extreme pathos, enhanced by the sombre atmosphere and dramatic lighting.

This is an early work painted by Ribera in Naples, where the artist had moved in 1616 after spending several years in Rome. The painting is thought to have been commissioned by the Genoese nobleman and collector Marcantonio Doria (1572–1651) in 1619 but was not delivered to him until 1623. Doria commissioned works from the leading artists of the day including Caravaggio, whose works Ribera had had the opportunity to study in both Rome and Naples. Caravaggio’s style was to have a lasting influence on Ribera: here, the forceful chiaroscuro and naturalistic rendering of the body of Christ – surely modelled on a real person – are both inspired by him.

This is the earliest representation of the Lamentation by Ribera. It relates stylistically to two other works he produced for the Collegiate Church of Osuna in Spain, both of which can be securely dated: The Crucifixion (1618) and Saint Sebastian (161718). Saint Sebastian’s bare torso resembles that of Christ and all three paintings are dramatically illuminated, with the figures spot-lit against an almost pitch-black background.

Technical examination of this painting, including X-radiography, has revealed that Ribera originally painted Mary Magdalene’s face much closer to Christ’s right foot, in the act of kissing it. This gesture appears in other Lamentations by Ribera, such as those in the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid (1633) and the Certosa di San Martino in Naples (1637). It is not clear why Ribera changed his mind here, but he may have preferred not to have anything interfere with the pure outline of Christ’s body.

There has not always been general agreement about who painted this picture. Generally thought to be by Ribera until 1925, it was subsequently assigned to various artists including Massimo Stanzione, Nicolas Tournier and an anonymous seventeenth-century Sevillian painter. Ribera’s authorship was proposed again in 1952 but was not universally accepted until after the painting was cleaned in the 1990s. (NG)


Ribera, Jusepe de (1591-1652)
Museo Thyssen-BornemiszaMadrid