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-- by Melanie Heineman
Jusepe de Ribera (1591?-1652), also known as "Lo Spagnoletto," was one of the most prominent painting masters during the 17th century in Italy. Although Ribera was born in Spain, he produced works and had patrons both in Spain and Italy throughout his career. The artist immigrated to Spanish-ruled Naples, the prominent city for artists in the 17th century, when he was a teenager. His heritage as a Spaniard and leading Neapolitan painter undoubtedly influenced the paintings and prints he produced. Ribera's works were Spanish influenced in content and Italian inspired in technique; his paintings and prints were frequently devoted to themes of saints and religious events reflecting the spiritual intensity and mysticism of the Spanish Counter-Reformation, while his use of line, color and shadow emulated the Italianate Baroque style of Caravaggio. There is little information concerning the influence of Ribera's printmaking, however, it is assumed the artist followed and experimented with the techniques of his contemporaries such as Annibale Carracci and Guido Reni.
Saint Jerome (c. 260-c.339), who later served as papal secretary, had been born into a wealthy Roman family and was educated by the famous pagan grammarian Donatus. At the age of twenty-four, Jerome was baptized and traveled to Gaul where he became a monk. Jerome soon felt he was called to travel to the region where Christ had lived and in 374 he found himself in Antioch. In a dream, the saint saw himself called to judgment before Christ, who questioned his Christian faith and accused him of clinging to material pursuits. Troubled by this vision, Jerome lived as a hermit for years in the Syrian Desert, giving up his classical learning to devote himself to spiritual introspection. After years as a hermit, Jerome returned to a monastery in Bethlehem and remained there until his death in 420. Jerome's many years of religious study and meditation resulted in his writing of the monumental standard Latin text of the Bible, known as the Vulgate, which served as the authoritative text for Christian exegesis for a thousand years and was confirmed by the Council of Trent as the authorized Latin version of the Bible for the Counter-Reformation Catholic Church. Ribera chose the moment of St. Jerome's encounter with an angel blowing the trumpet of the Last Judgement. The penitent saint is advanced in years and is most likely suffering from some sort of delirium due to the death of his companions and the long years spent in devotional fasting and prayer in the secluded desert. Ribera depicts books, a quill pen and Hebrew scrolls to suggest the scholarly pursuits of the saint, even though the trumpeting call to Judgment was an event from earlier in Jerome's life. The head of the lion in the very far left of the print refers to the story of Jerome removing a thorn from a lion's paw, whereupon the creature became his life-long companion. The skull next to Jerome's left elbow is a vanitas symbol, referring to his earthly, physical desires and serving as a reminder that life and material wealth on earth is fleeting and has no place in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Ribera's etching "Saint Jerome and the Angel" is one his most repeated and popular prints. The artistic aspects of Ribera's Saint Jerome are characteristically Baroque in theme and formal approach. The subject of the martyred saint was a prevalent theme in Spanish Baroque art, which was devoted to the religious policies and goals of the Catholic Counter-Reformation movement. The Church commissioned many artists in order to promote and revitalize the Catholic faith through the expressive vehicle of visual imagery. The dramatic moment that Ribera chooses to illustrate in his etching is typical of Spanish Baroque art. In order to enhance the content and intent of the work, the artist depicts the most climactic moment. The spectator can sense St. Jerome's astonishment at the sight of the trumpeting angel, as he is both in spiritual awe and frightened at the same moment. The naturalistic approach to the figure of Saint Jerome is another stylistic aspect of the etching's relation to the Spanish Baroque. Ribera has carefully employed the detailed linear capabilities of the etching technique to produce a graphic depiction of the emaciated, sinewy body of the saint.
Ribera's Saint Jerome also reflects singular formal and technical traits associated with this particular etching. The most unique characteristic of Ribera's work was his sensitivity to the mysteries of human expression. Ribera had the ability to manipulate his technical elements to reveal the psychological inner workings of his saints and martyrs, giving the viewer an intimate sense of the saints' thought processes during their experience of suffering and devotional piety. Ribera also tended to experiment with several etching techniques in his prints, which resulted in unprecedented effects of light, shadow, and texture that contributed to the heightened psychological effect of his subjects. Essentially, Ribera's martyrdom series, which included the etching of St. Jerome, sought to depict physical pain as the visual representation of the soul's spiritual struggle for salvation and its impending solace in Heaven.
Ribera treats the figure of St. Jerome with a careful, almost stipple-like technique, in order to produce an effective naturalistic form. Ribera's endeavor to create a severely emaciated, aging saint was achieved by enriching the light and shadow of the body. Ribera builds his lights and shadows in several ways; one approach involves contrasting the dark lines of the saint's torso with the light, wispy lines of hair on his chest. The artist also employs crosshatching on certain parts of the body, such as the left leg and arm to contrast with the untouched part of the left shoulder and right leg. The intermediate tones scattered about the remaining torso of Saint Jerome's body assist in coordinating the extremely dark and light areas. Saint Jerome is by far Ribera's most conscientiously treated figure, as the amount of detail and careful rendering on the part of the artist allows the viewer to get a sense of the wiry body and the anguish of the saint. Ribera used an etching needle to carve out the figure of St. Jerome on the plate, which was covered with a thin film of sugar-coat. The idea of digging into the plate with the sharp tool evokes the feeling of the world's physical toll on the body of the saint, since Jerome's sinewy, gaunt body was marked by the harsh effects of starvation and exposure. The plate is then dipped into an acid bath where the annihilative liquid bites away at the lines. Similarly, the intense rays of the sun and abrasive wind devour St. Jerome's body.
Another point of interest in the print is the image of the angel, who is trumpeting from the heavens. The left side of the angel's body is in shadow, applied by a mass of crosshatched lines, while his left side is barely touched by Ribera's needle. The upper portion of the angel's left wing is a series of crosshatched marks laid over parallel lines, while the lower portion is made up of slightly curving singular lines. The angel's left arm is cast in shadow by crosshatching, while short flickering lines delineate the rest of his arm and body. Ribera chooses to outline the shape of the angel's trumpet with quick strokes, creating a dark background to contrast with the almost white form of the trumpet, which seems to glow with a divine radiance.
This print of St. Jerome is the most technically refined of Ribera's two etched versions of the theme. In contrast to the second version being discussed here, an earlier treatment titled St. Jerome and the Trumpet (also dated 1621) contains figures that are more crude. For example, the right shoulder of the saint in St. Jerome and the Trumpet is completely crosshatched which gives it a more flat look. In the second version, however, the saint's right shoulder has a patch of lightness in the middle, with lines surrounding it to give it a more life-like appearance. The most dramatic difference between the earlier version and the second 1621 print is the background, which is most likely why Ribera reworked the print numerous times. In the initial print, the background is produced by loose, extended lines which defeat the illusion of volume and the sky is crudely defined by parallel strokes that collide with the massive outline of the rock.
Ribera's subject of St. Jerome and his call to judgement relates to the deeply fanatical religious climate associated with both the Spanish and Italian Baroque. The ultimate goal of the age was dedicated to "eternal glory," which was to turn men from their sinful life and lead them to the righteousness of God. Ribera relied on his brutally naturalistic scene of the saint to compel the viewer to a pious way of life. Ribera used the graphic arts not only to aesthetically further the meaning of his works, but also to promote and more widely circulate his art.