Saint Paul Hermit, 17th century

Workshop of José de Ribera, first half of the 17th century
Oil on canvas
118 x 98 cm

Saint Paul concentrated on prayer, his back defeated by the weight of the years, his face endowed with the serenity of him who is at peace with God. With his eyes closed, absorbed in meditation, he sits in the darkness of the cave and emerges from the gloom illuminated by a violent spotlight that shows us the few possessions of the saint: the bread that is his only sustenance, the Holy Scriptures and a skull, symbol of the transience of the material. 

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Description and formal analysis

In this magnificent painting we are shown a pure image of the naturalistic baroque, both formally and thematically, since the hermit and penitent saints were very much liked by the clientele of the time, as an example of devotion, straight life and detachment from material.

Saint Paul appears here represented in a composition of the naturalistic baroque, widely used by Ribera in his representations of holy hermits: the half-length figure in the foreground, very close to the viewer, with few elements around it and before a background covered by Dense darkness From among the shadows the figure and the objects appear in a violent, tenebristic way, directly illuminated by a direct light whose focus we do not see, which penetrates the scene from the upper left corner. There are hardly any half lights; the hard contrasts bring a monumental sense to what is represented, which acquires tactile qualities and an amazing realism.

The saint appears sitting inside his cave, leaning towards a large book arranged on a flat rock, on which we see a skull. The sheet of the book, wrinkled by the skull, rises creating a game of half shadows that reinforces the three-dimensionality of the representation. These are the Holy Scriptures, which combined with the skull make up an image of typically Baroque pathos, which calls for prayer and the elevation of the soul above material temptations. In the foreground, next to the figure and equally illuminated, the beggar of bread that a raven took daily to the hermit, one of its main iconographic attributes next to palm leaf clothes.

Chromatism is equally typical of Ribera, around the warm tones, lighter in the flesh and more golden in the skull, bread and braided palm of the saint’s garment. Stresses especially the rich color range used in the representation of the saint; in his face more orange tones are appreciated, different from the almost cold of his arm. Magnificently drawn, his face and hands, knotty and expressive, appear somewhat darker, modeled through a subtle play of contrasts of light and shadow.

This painting is the workshop copy of a work by Ribera, currently preserved in the Prado Museum, in Madrid (inv. No. P001115). Both canvases have the same measures, and the similarity between the two is such that we can deduce that the copy was made using the tracing technique, and therefore in Ribera’s own workshop, by one of his disciples. We do not see the ease of the brushstroke of Ribera, his inimitable genius, but a very high level of execution is appreciated; the drawing, the brushstroke, the chromatism and the handling of the light denote a deep knowledge of the work of the master, as well as a brilliant own talent. On the other hand, while in the work of the Prado the creative expressiveness of a Ribera is evidenced by painting the natural from a model, inventing the image according to the picture, in the canvas under study a logical rigidity derived from the copy system itself is appreciated . This can be seen in areas such as the face, somewhat flatter than in the original work, or in the skull, as well as in the treatment of the different textures of the skin, more polished in the paint that we address here. The same goes for the saint’s hair and beard, lighter and more uniform than in the original Ribera.

It should be noted, however, a notable difference between both canvases. When analyzing our painting using UV radiation, the profile of a crow can be seen behind the skull, which, however, does not appear in the Prado painting. Perhaps originally the work signed by Ribera also included the bird, which had disappeared under the varnish obscured for centuries. Or it may also be that the work under study responded to a particular request from a client requesting such extension of the iconography.

José de Ribera and his workshop

The first chronologically of the great Spanish masters of the seventeenth century, José de Ribera (Játiva, 1591 – Naples, 1652) developed his entire career in Italy, mainly in Naples, where he was known as «Lo Spagnoletto». It is speculated that he may have begun his training in the workshop of Valencian José de Ribalta, although his works from this period are not preserved that can confirm it. We do know, however, that in 1611 it is already installed in Italy, in the city of Parma, with twenty years of age. In 1615 we found him in Rome integrated in the colony of foreign painters; There you will know first-hand the classicist painting of Reni and the Carracci, as well as that of Caravaggio and the harsh gloom of the Dutch caravaggists settled in the Italian capital. A year later, he will leave the city, as he has reportedly escaping from his creditors, which leads him to think of a first stage of bohemian and somewhat dissolute youth. He will then leave for Naples, whose capital was then experiencing a time of commercial opulence that encouraged artistic patronage. There he will marry the daughter of Bernardino Azzolino, an important local painter. At that time the kingdom of Naples belonged to the Spanish crown, and both territories were linked not only politically but also culturally. That is why many of Ribera’s works will arrive in Spain from a very early date, causing a great impact on contemporary painters such as Velázquez and Murillo. In addition to having important clients in Rome, Naples and other Italian cities, the young master aroused the admiration of the Spanish viceroy, the Duke of Osuna. It was through his mediation, and that of the viceroys who succeeded him in office, that many of his works entered Spain and, in particular, in the royal collection. In fact, Felipe IV came to own more paintings by Ribera than any other Spanish artist, around a hundred. On the other hand, the Valencian was also a notable engraver, and in fact his prints circulated throughout Europe, spreading his influence even more.

Criticism and historiography agree that Ribera, despite his Spanish origin, cultivated a markedly foreign painting in his style, types and themes. He developed a language derived from Caravaggio and led to its ultimate consequences, with strong and theatrical light contrasts, of great expressive effectiveness, and rough human types captured with a raw realism. However, he also knew how to understand and interpret other contemporary influences, such as Bolognese classicism and Roman coloring. From the technical point of view his painting is characterized by thick fillings, tactile qualities, masterfully used to provide monumentality to his works. This richness and diversity of expressive media, the result of his masterful understanding of the art of painting and his direct contact with the Italian landscape, will be exceptional among his Spanish contemporaries. On the other hand, while in Spain painters worked mainly religious themes, Ribera also addressed other genres hitherto unknown there, as we see in his series of beggars and philosophers of Antiquity or in his scenes inspired by classical mythology, which he must have known in depth. He was also a great artist and engraver, something very rare among Spanish artists of the time.

Apart from its international influence, Ribera was key to the creation of the Neapolitan school. Author prolific and very successful in his time, it is known that he had an important workshop in Naples, which allowed him a wide production and the realization of several versions or copies of the same painting. In fact, when from 1644 the teacher is afflicted by serious health problems, his workshop will continue to function under his direction. By 1650, however, his workshop saw the number of officers reduced, fled from Naples due to political problems. However Ribera will continue to perform masterpieces until the same year of his death, 1652. Today we have numerous news about José de Ribera’s workshop. In it, notable names of the following generations were formed, such as Luca Giordano, Francesco Fracanzano and Bartolomeo Bassante. The latter, in fact, developed in his formative years a language very close to the teacher, being in fact his work many of the paintings that left the Ribera workshop to be sent to other countries, because he was so faithful imitator of his style that His paintings were easily confused. On the other hand, Fracanzano also developed a language closely linked to his teacher, with dark paintbrushes of dense brushstroke and dark palette, evolving at the end of his career to incorporate more luminous effects to his work, whose chromaticism is clarified. Luca Giordano, the most notable and original of the three mentioned, one of the great Baroque artists of the second half of the seventeenth century, was marked from his early years for his friendship with Ribera. He entered his workshop at a young age, and from his hand he met and understood the different pictorial tendencies of the time. Although that of Giordano is a work in constant evolution, Ribera’s influence is evident in his composing and in his tenebrist lighting, although he uses color differently. In fact, he even made imitations on behalf of his teacher’s style.

The importance of José de Ribera’s workshop can be seen today in the number of first-class works from the latter that are preserved in large museums around the world, including the Prado in Madrid, the Kensington Palace in London , the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Meadows Museum of Dallas, the Nelson-Atkins of Kansas City, the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Nationalmuseum of Stockholm, the Alte Galerie of the Schloss Eggenberg of Graz, the Museum of Fine Arts St. Pius V of Valencia and the Valletta National of Fine Arts. The concept of the Baroque workshop has its roots in the Italian Renaissance, where the painters’ bottegas were authentic creative communities. In them we will see the structure of the baroque workshop where apprentices, workers, artisans, fixed artists and guests will be coordinated by the teacher. The size of each workshop depended on demand and, therefore, on the fame of the teacher; Ribera had a notable workshop, given that he received numerous commissions from both Naples and other cities in Italy and abroad. Thus, the teacher was the great creator of concepts and ideas, and his assistants were responsible for the execution to a greater or lesser extent. Ribera would personally take care of many paintings, but to meet the demand it was necessary for his assistants to take care of the elaboration of many others. The teacher would probably make sketches on which his disciples and assistants would work, give the necessary finishing touches and supervise the entire process. The assistants, in addition, would take care of the realization of copies of works of the teacher of subjects especially demanded, like the images of saints. These copies would be painted using decals and other techniques, in order to get as close as possible to the original.


Paul of Thebes, also called Paul the Hermit or the Egyptian, was a hermit born in the region of Tebaida, in Egypt, around the year 228, and died in 342. He is revered as a saint in the Catholic and Coptic Churches, and considered also as the first hermit for the Christian tradition. His main hagiography was written by St. Jerome in the second half of the fourth century, and it is narrated that he was the son of a rich family, so he would have received an excellent education that included the study of Egyptian culture and the Greek language. Around 250 he left the city to go to the desert of Thebes to live as a hermit, after being denounced for his Christian faith by several relatives who wanted to deprive him of his heritage, during the persecution of Emperor Decio. According to St. Jerome, Paul found in the desert the peace necessary to communicate with God, so he stayed away from civilization for the rest of his life, intending to help the world not with words but through penance and prayer. For forty-three years Saint Paul lived in a cave located next to a stream and a palm tree, which provided him with clothing and food. St Jerome narrates that, when the palm tree no longer had dates, a raven began to visit him daily to bring him bread.

After more than seventy years of solitude, however, the words of Christ were fulfilled: «everyone who humbles himself will be magnified.» In that desert another hermit was withdrawn, Saint Antonio Abad, who was lurking the temptation to believe himself the oldest hermit in the world. However, one night he was informed in dreams that there was a hermit before himself, so he undertook a trip to look for him. This is how St. Paul received at the end of his life, with 113 years of age, the visit of St. Anthony, with whom he talked throughout the day and all night, finally announcing that his death was near. The second time Saint Anthony went to visit him, he found him dead; He dressed him in the robe that Athanasius of Alexandria had given him and buried him in a pit dug by two lions that miraculously came. Saint Anthony always kept the garment of Saint Paul made with palm leaves with great veneration, and he himself dressed with her in the great festivities.

Saint very represented in art, especially in the Catholic world from the Counter-Reformation, usually Saint Paul Hermit is represented with his palm leaf tunic, the raven and sometimes also with the two lions. It is also common to appear next to Saint Anthony.

Historic context

Following the rapid dissemination by Europe of the ideas of Martin Luther during the first half of the 16th century, the Counter-Reformation will emerge within the Catholic Church, whose dogmas were set at the Council of Trent (1545-1563). The doctrine was enhanced through literature, art and liturgical celebrations, permeating Catholic societies in a sense not only religious, but also deeply ideological. Within this context the Spanish Empire will rise as a strong arm of the Catholic Church. This will largely mark the development of Hispanic art, of deep Catholic affiliation and very faithful to the opinions of Trento.

The seventeenth century marked the beginning of the end of the Spanish Empire, being a time of economic and social crisis, although bright in terms of arts and letters, an authentic Golden Age. Philip IV (1605-1640) was In fact, a monarch who loves arts, especially painting and theater, educated and educated. However, during his long reign (1621-1665) he had to accept the loss of Spanish hegemony in Europe, after exhausting wars and a serious internal crisis. His son and successor, Carlos II (1661-1700), would be the last of the Habsburg dynasty. The generations of consanguineous marriages of this royal house produced such degeneration that Carlos was, since childhood, sickly and of short intelligence. It was also sterile, which led to a serious inheritance conflict when the king died in 1700, at 38, without offspring.

The kingdom of Naples, constituted as an independent state after its split from the kingdom of Sicily in 1282, lost its independence in 1501 when King Frederick I was dethroned by the joint troops of France and Aragon. Although at first the kingdom was divided between both victors, in 1504 France will cede the entire kingdom to Aragon, which would later integrate it into the Spanish Empire. The majority of the Spanish viceroys of Naples, especially from the reign of Philip II (1556-1598), were appointed from among the Castilian nobility, thus strengthening political control over the region. The Spanish Viceroyalty of Naples remained as such until 1707, when during the war of Spanish succession the kingdom became part of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1737, Naples will finally regain its independence, following the war of Polish succession.

In 1616, when José de Ribera arrives in Naples, the viceroy sent by Felipe III is Pedro Téllez-Girón y Velasco, III Duke of Osuna, whom we have already mentioned as the principal patron of the painter. Four years later he would be dismissed on suspicion of independence, but his successors maintained his artistic policy, so Ribera’s success would only grow. However, during the central decades of the 17th century the situation in Naples will be marked by economic and social instability. The high point will be the Masaniello revolt in 1647, in which the people rebelled in protest at the food shortage and the high tax pressure due to military expenses. After ten days of revolts Masaniello was accused of madness, betrayed and finally killed, but his revolution destabilized the viceregal government and opened the way to the Neapolitan Republic, established five months after his death. A year later, however, the Spanish Empire will conquer the region again. For some time they will continue to revolt in Naples, but they will be quickly stifled by the government and, little by little, will return to the previous order.


Neapolitan school is known as the one developed in the seventeenth century in the Spanish Viceroyalty of Naples. It is therefore a baroque school, although it will extend its influence beyond the 18th century. Its distinctive sign was its marked naturalistic character, with warm tones predominantly reds and chestnuts, and the development of a realistic painting that encompasses not only religious themes but also still life, especially highlighting still lifes with marine animals.

The seventeenth century begins in Naples with some artists trained in the mannerism of the previous century, who by their longevity coexisted with the beginning and development of the naturalistic baroque. The main examples would be Fabrizio Santafede (d. 1634) and Belisario Corenzio (d. 1643), the latter especially noted for the elegance of his fresco paintings. The crucial change of this late-Germanist panorama will come when, in 1607, it passes through the city Caravaggio, who will leave some of his masterpieces there. His vigorous naturalism and tenebrism will make a deep impression on artists such as Giovanni Battista Caracciolo, perhaps the painter who best understood the language of the Milanese master.

Even greater influence will be exercised in Naples by the Spaniard José de Ribera who, after studying in northern Italy and knowing the tenebrism in Rome, settled permanently in the city in 1616. Protected by the viceroys, he exercised an absolute artistic hegemony in the region, accompanied by an important work of «direct or indirect» teaching on younger Neapolitan artists. His naturalism is less intellectual than that of Caravaggio, oriented instead in a more sensual and material, vigorous and energetic direction. The language of Ribera, in addition, is enhanced by Roman, Bolognese, Venetian and Flemish influences, which determine a richer color and an increasingly lighter technique, especially after 1635. Around it many painters will be formed, among those that stand out the brothers Cesare and Francesco Fracanzano, Bartolomeo Bassante, Paolo Domenico Finoglia, Aniello Falcone, Salvatore Rosa and Luca Giordano.

In parallel there will be another group of artists who, although they are also interested in the naturalism of Ribera, are oriented more towards a certain classicism in the Bolognese way, which had arrived in Naples through the visits of Guido Reni (1612 and 1821) and Domenichino (1630 to 1641). These painters will also show the influence of Simon Vouet and Artemis Gentileschi, interpreters of the caravaggismo with lighter colors and more academic forms. Massimo Stanzione will be the main representative of this hybrid artistic sector of naturalism and classicism, of which notable masters such as Bernardo Cavallino and Andrea Vaccaro were also part.

The great Neapolitan painting of the second half of the 17th century, marked by the influence of decorative baroque, will have as its starting point the figure of Giovanni Lanfranco, who remained in Naples between 1633 and 1646. This new current melts the language of Lanfranco – rooted in its turn in the elegant mannerism of Correggio‒ with echoes of the Venetian and Flemish paintings that made up the viceregal collections and the local nobility. The absolute success of the new language was due in large part to a dramatic fact: in 1656 a great plague epidemic struck the city, killing many of its artists and marking a border between painters formed in the first half of the century and the exuberance full baroque decoration.

The great representative of this final chapter of the Neapolitan XVII is Luca Giordano, a disciple of José de Ribera who would evolve in a very personal decorative line. Next to him we find the Calabrian Mattia Preti, who passed several times in Naples and left there some of his most beautiful works, which merge the influence of Ribera with Venetian and Guercino echoes.

Comparative study

When making a comparative study of this painting, we must first refer to the original of Ribera located in the Prado and from the royal collection (fig. 1), whose similarities and differences we have pointed out above. On the other hand, there are several works in the Ribera workshop in public collections and in the market that show important parallels with the work we study. Perhaps the closest is the Sisyphus of the Prado Museum (fig. 2), a work that divides the specialists between those who believe it from the Ribera workshop and those who place it in the orbit of the young Luca Giordano. Share with our painting a similar treatment of carnations, their modeling and chromatism, and especially the way of representing the face. Something further from ours, less riberesque, are some of the paintings of the Apostolate preserved in the same museum. Made by the Ribera workshop, among them we find some of quality clearly inferior to that of our canvas, such as San Judas Tadeo (fig. 3). Something similar occurs with the representation of St. Jerome of the Valletta National Museum of Fine Arts (fig. 4) or with the Philosopher in the mirror of the Dallas Meadows Museum (fig. 5), both attributed to the Ribera workshop although much less bright than the canvas we study here.

Closer to the hand of the author of our painting would be three works of the art market: San Onofre (fig. 6, Koller Auctions, Zurich, September 2019, sale A190 lot 3059), San Pedro and San Pablo (fig. 7, Sotheby’s London, July 2016, sale L16034 lot 177) and Aesop (fig. 8, idem, July 2019, sale L19034 lot 171). the first two resemble ours notably, although with differences in lighting (San Onofre) and chromatism (San Pedro and San Pablo). The third, on the other hand, denotes a more clumsy hand than that of the author of the painting we study here, especially in the drawing.


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PÉREZ SÁNCHEZ, A.; SPINOSA, N. L’opera completa del Ribera. Milano, Rizzoli, 1978.

PÉREZ SÁNCHEZ, A.; SPINOSA, N. eds. Jusepe de Ribera, 1591-1652. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992. Catálogo de la exposición.

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WHITFIELD, C.; MARTINEAU, J., eds. Painting in Naples, 1606-1705. From Caravaggio to Giordano. London, Royal Academy of Arts, 1982.

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