Christ Embracing St. Bernard

7:00 AM

Francisco Ribalta, Christ Embracing St. Bernard, 1625-27

As we have learned time and time again in with art history, we are skewed in favor of chance when it comes to the study of art. What paintings happen to survive define how we look at entire periods and how we bring art together in the groups we so love. Well, Ribalta bucks the system: in terms of a lack of records, in terms of the style of his painting, and most of all in terms of his religious interpretation. Francisco Ribalta existed at a time of transition for Spanish art, wedged in between the drama of early counter reformation and the brashness of up-and-coming naturalism. In his first years as a serious painter under the church patriarch, Juan de Ribera, well within the norms of late 16th century Spanish painting. His early works had all the color and intensity of an el Greco with the authenticity to the bible that church leaders so valued at this time. But when Ribera dies, so does record of Ribalta's work and when we catch sight of him again, everything is different.

As you can see in Christ Embracing St. Bernard, Caravaggio's influence has hit Spain with full force. With the intense chiaroscuro, the emphasis on earth tones, the intimacy of the scene, and the circular composition between the figures, Ribalta has given into the same fascination with Caravaggio that still haunts everyone who studies him. There's more though. Between the wrinkles, Jesus's wounds, and the more accurate proportions, we can see the emerging influences of naturalism taking hold in his work. This is the painting of a changed man.

The real reason I chose this painting, however, has little to do with the fact that Ribalta changed his own style and has more to do with what I see emerging in the Spanish art world. This momentum ends up producing some of my favorite works. The coming movement brings Christ and the saints to life and provides the first realistic exemplifications of what it is to be a holy man in a human body. "But no!" you say. "That's what all of renaissance art history has been about! Libby, we've been looking at nothing but holy men for the whole year! Surely you can't have missed all of that." To that I say, yes and no. Yes we have definitely seen a LOT of Jesus, but the image of their holiness has always been conveyed with a demure -- borderline sleepy -- expression and a halo. Caravaggio is the first one who comes close to creating depictions of these folks that look like actual people, but where his figures have gained realistic talent and emotion, they have lost the tenderness and the essence of God. Ribalta is the first to bring together both aspects. He creates figures that are lifelike and still deeply graceful. Although we're not exactly sure what brought about this shift or what his art looked like as it evolved, I'm just glad we got here. In this work Ribalta shows relatable human expression and struggle with the presence of godly people inside of their godly nature as they might look in the flesh. To me, that is an extraordinarily valuable thing. 

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