Beauty in Death: Crucifixion of Saint Philip

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Beauty in Death

An Investigation of the Divine Demise 
Curated by Tommy Dunn

Jusepe de Ribera, Crucifixion of Saint Philip, 1639

Saint Philip, one of Christ’s disciples, benefited from a glorious martyrdom. Philip found himself sentenced to death after offending an official in the city of Hierapolis—Philip converted the man’s wife to Christianity. Philip, like Peter, asked his captors to crucify him upside down. He and several other conspirators were to be executed, including Saint Bartholomew. However, the proconsul of Hierapolis had underestimated Philip’s powers. While hanging upside down on a crucifix, he delivered a sermon that so entranced execution-goers and passers-by alike that many of them converted on the spot. He convinced them to free Saint Bartholomew. They offered to let him down from his cross as well, but he refused and thus died there several days later.

Ribera paints St. Philip as his captors raise him onto the cross. I find this painting deeply disturbing. To me, St. Philip seems as though he is already close to death. His skin is pale and almost lifeless. His torso looks frightening. It caves in below his rib cage. The weakness forms a stark contrast with his robust arm muscles—as my eye moves down the piece it looks like he decays in front of me. Ribera deftly shades the work to bring out every grotesque curve in Philip’s body. No salvation presents itself in this painting—this is an image of suffering. Ribera oddly chooses to contrast Philip’s crucifixion with a brilliant blue sky.

Despite this moment of pain, Philip in a way emerges triumphant. He comes out a saint, able to convert the masses from his crucifix. Philip’s story illustrates the common Christian theme of redemption borne of suffering.

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