RIBALTA, Francisco
(b. 1565, Solsona, d. 1628, Valencia)

Christ Embracing St Bernard

Oil on canvas, 158 x 113 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid

The first Spanish painter in the 17th century to abandon Mannerism for the new realistic style was Francisco Ribalta, a Catalan who, after receiving his early training in Toledo spent the years of his maturity in Valencia. It is not known whether Ribalta was aquainted with the work of Caravaggio or whether he arrived independently at results parallel to those achieved by the Italian Tenebrists. At all events, his style is remarkable for its virile naturalism. The brushwork is increasingly bold and free, so different from the polished smoothness of the previous age. Ribalta sought expressiveness as well as beauty and accentuated the sculptural modeling of his forms by contrasting light and shade. Among his better known works are the Last Supper in the Valencia Museum and the panels of the great altarpiece of Algemesi, painted in 1603; one of these, that depicting the martyrdom of St James, suggests a connection between Ribalta and Navarrete.

The Christ Embracing St Bernard came from the Cartuja de Porta Coeli, Valencia, and was painted in the mid-1620s. Here, perhaps for the first time, a Spanish painter was able to realize the full potential of the naturalist style to communicate profound religious feelings. The depiction of St Bernard's rapturous vision is perfectly calculated to achieve maximum effect. The saint is represented as a gaunt figure with prominent cheekbones and deep-set eyes. He embraces Christ, and his mouth forms a half smile that communicates the holy rapture suffusing his body and soul. As Christ descends from the cross to meet him, St Bernard's body goes limp and needs to be supported by the Savior. Under the tightly focused light, the figures seem palpable. Exercising superb control of the composition and every detail, Ribalta succeeds in externalising this powerful religious experience, making it seem real but not commonplace.