The Martyrdom of Saint Philip1639. Oil on canvas, 234 x 234 cm.
According to sources from antiquity and The Golden Legend (a 13th-century book that narrates the lives of saints), the apostle Philip preached the Gospel in Scythia and was crucified in the city of Hierapolis. His martyrdom has rarely been represented -the best known depiction is Filippino Lippi’s (1457-1504) fresco at the Strozzi Chapel in the Florentine church of Santa Maria Novella- but it usually shows him tied, rather than nailed, to the cross. The present work was long classified as a martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew, the apostle who was skinned alive, but in 1953, U.S. art historian Delphine Fitz Derby pointed out its true subject. Painted on an epic scale, with possibly larger-than-life figures, the canvas presents the martyrdom as an impressive religious and human tragedy. Saint Philip’s long limbs are extended as he turns his face to the heavens in an anguished petition for divine succor. The heavens do not open, however, nor is there a chorus of angels; for Ribera, martyrdom is an essentially earthly spectacle. Saint Philip is not depicted as eighty-seven years old, as his hagiographers described him, but instead as a powerfully built, middle-aged man. His ordinary features, suntanned face, short hair and mustache reveal that, like the model used by Ribera, he was of humble origin. The artist very theatrically contrasts the saint’s resignation with the vigorous physical efforts of the two henchmen pulling on the rope to raise the cross’s horizontal bar. A third one tries to hold Saint Philip by the leg, and bystanders gather to witness his cruel fate, some pityingly, others with indifference. This work epitomizes Ribera’s depictions of martyrdom: tenebrous and concentrated, unyielding in its representation of suffering and implacable in its imitation of worn and aged flesh. At the same time, the low viewpoint reveals a vast and beautiful blue sky, and Ribera offers a fascinating demonstration of painterly skill in his use of rich, saturated tones and his masterful handling of the paint, from the thick impastos on the saint’s flesh to the vibrant transparencies of the background figures. The work was painted in 1639, when the viceroy of Naples was the II Duke of Medina de las Torres (1637-1644). Medina was an enthusiastic client of Ribera and may well have commissioned this work, probably as a gift to king Philip IV. Philip was the patron saint of both the king and the duke, whose compete name was Ramiro Felipe Núñez de Guzmán. The work does not appear in the inventory of the Duke of Medina’s collection (drawn up in 1669), and its first listing is at Madrid’s Alcázar Palace in 1666, where it is describe as: 3 rods long and 3 high [249 x 249 cm] gilded frame of someone being tormented, by Jusepe de Ribera 300 silver ducats. Despite the fact that it hung in one of the main halls, where the king gave audience, and was appraised at a high price, just one generation was enough for its subject to have been forgotten (Text drawn from Finaldi, G.: 100 Obras Maestras del Museo del Prado, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2008, p. 116).