Jusepe de Ribera is far more than a Caravaggio tribute act, says Will Gore

“They look a bit like Caravaggio.” That’s what most people say about the paintings of Jusepe de Ribera. It’s impossible not to see the influence of the wild Italian in Ribera’s best known works, with dramatic chiaroscuro revealing violent religious scenes populated by gnarled characters, who all look desperately in need of a hot bath and a square meal.

The evidence isn’t there just in the aesthetic either, but in the chronology, too. As a young man, Ribera moved from Valencia to Rome around 1612, and probably absorbed the early masterpieces Caravaggio had painted in the city just a few years earlier. His subsequent move to Naples in 1616, another city where Caravaggio lived and worked, must have increased his indebtedness.

Ribera paintings appeared in the National Gallery’s Beyond Caravaggio blockbuster back in 2016, but now, and for the first time in Britain, he’s getting an exhibition all to himself. The blurb for Dulwich Picture Gallery’s Ribera: Art of Violence can’t help but mention that “Ribera is often regarded as the heir to Caravaggio” (Caravaggio is a useful marketing tool, after all). But the primary objective is to showcase Ribera as a dazzling, multifaceted artist in his own right. “Beyond Caravaggio” would, in fact, have been a decent alternative title for this show, if it hadn’t already been taken.

Ribera’s religious art, like Caravaggio’s, encapsulated the Counter-Reformation’s principles of devotion, sacrifice and martyrdom: a stark Christianity with the gaudy trappings stripped away. Take The Martyrdom of St Bartholomew, one of a number of Bartholomew pictures in the Dulwich show, as a case in point. The saint, with his taught skin stretched across the canvas, is a startling vision of stoic suffering. His defiant stare captures the viewer, dragging us into his ordeal.

Dr Edward Payne, co-curator of the exhibition, believes Ribera’s approach to these religious subjects takes Caravaggio style to another level. “I find Ribera’s realism even more raw,” he tells me.

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