Medium: Oil On Canvas
Size: 126 x 97 cm
Signed: Jusepe R.....
Unknown; acquired before 1891 by Robert Clarke; to Sir Ralph Stephenson Clarke; the Estate of Robert Clarke, 1993; Acquired by the Chicago Art Institute, 1993.
Ribera, Naples (pp. 168-169, number 130 in the catalogue), Madrid (pp.218-220, number 27 in the catalogue); New York (pp.88-89, number 21 in the catalogue).
The dominant role played by Ribera in the artistic life of Naples was probably due more to his powerful character than the support of the Spanish Viceroys for another exile from their homeland. Nonetheless, soon after his arrival there he seems to have entered the household of the Viceroy and, for the remainder of his career, he remained close to the seat of executive power. As the most successful of Caravaggio’s disciples, his influence was prodigious and copyists and imitators continued his legacy well into the second half of the century.
Relatively little is known between his birth in 1591 in the modest but ancient city of Jativa, in the province of Valencia, the son of a shoemaker, and 1611, when he received payment in Parma for an altarpiece of Saint Martin for the Church of San Prospero (now lost, but known from an engraving). A recent study of the early career of the artist has decisively rejected the earlier hypothesis that he first studied with Ribalta, and we remain ignorant of his earlier training. There has been speculation that he journeyed to Rome via Naples, circa 1608-09, but by what route or with whose patronage we do not know. It is evident, however, that to have received such an important commission as that for an alterpiece on public view in Parma, a major artistic centre, Ribera must already have been held in considerable esteem as a painter.
Ribera left Rome for Naples in the summer of 1616, perhaps at the invitation of the Viceroy, the Duke of Osuna, and a few months later married Caterina Azzolino. Records of payments from the secret account of the King in the bank of San Giacomo in 1618 affirm that the young artist was in the employ of the Viceroy while, later in his career in 1646, he is described as ‘of the household of His Excellency [the Viceroy], resident in the royal palace’. The support of the Viceroy also led to commissions from the local aristocracy, most notably Prince Marcantonio Doria (intimately connected with his father-in-law, Giovanni Bernardino Azzolino), from great Spanish nobles such as the Duke of Lerma and, after 1620, from the Church, for which he produced some of his most spectacular and moving compositions. His fame was such that, in 1618, he received a commission from the Grand Duke of Tuscany and demand for his work eventually outstripped his ability to satisfy his patrons. Nonetheless, during the succeeding twenty years he demonstrated an extraordinary facility and speed of execution.
A series of etchings and engravings produced between 1616 and 1623, as well as a number of fine drawings, freed from the sometimes disturbing contrasts of oil paintings whose pigments have darkened, show a painter who had thoroughly mastered the most complex compositions. The Carvaggesque influence was gradually modulated from the 1630s, leading to a gentler naturalism and more even handling, reflecting the influence of Velazquez, whom he had met in 1630 and, after 1634, that of Van Dyck. Increasing ill-health during the years 1640-46 led to the greater participation of studio assistants, even in works signed and dated by the master, but nevertheless he continued to produce some splendid images, culminating in the exquisite Holy Family with Saints Anne and Catherine of Alexandria (New York, Metropolitan Museum) and the Saint Simeon and the Christ Child (formerly Matthiesen Gallery and now in a Spanish Private Collection).
Although our emotive Saint Peter Penitent had been acquired as a Ribera in the last century, it was unknown to scholars until the last owners invited Stair Sainty Matthiesen to offer it on their behalf in 1991. Its rediscovery and subsequent inclusion in the recent Ribera exhibition held in Naples, Madrid and New York, make it clear that it was the original prototype of at least three copies. Dated to about 1630 by Nicola Spinosa in his catalogue entry on the painting, it marks the point at which Ribera turns away from the Caravaggism of the early Neapolitan period. Works such as the early Osuna Saint Peter, with which it may be compared, have the same simplicity of composition, emphasizing the monumentality of the figure, but lack the emotional depth that in this painting indicates a later date. The Saint Peter portrayed here gazes towards the heavens, his left hand in a position of gentle supplication, the right pointing to his heart, following the liturgical direction for a penitent to strike his breast during the Confession.
This episode takes place when Peter, alone and anticipating his death, begs forgiveness for his sins, of which the most egregious was his threefold betrayal of Jesus, ‘before the cock crows’. The expressive face, the eyes filled with tears, captures the immediacy of the moment when Christ’s successor, his Vicar on Earth, conscious of his own impending death, remembers the moment when he deserted his Lord, denying that he was one of the disciples. For the authors of the Gospels Peter’s betrayal of Christ ends with him going out and weeping; nothing is said of his repentance. But, for later Christian hagiographers, particularly those fourth century writers who record the story of Peter’s execution, there can have been no doubt that Peter must have repented this most terrible of sins. Hence, it is not the young man in his late twenties whom Christ had recently designated to be ‘the Rock upon which I will build my Church’, and who had failed in his promise to lay down his life for Jesus, but the old man, soon to die, filled with remorse and a sense of his own unworthiness. For the devout, this deeply inspirational work provides a certitude that forgiveness, and therefore salvation, would be open to even the worst sinners, if their repentance was sincere.