The National Gallery of Victoria’s collection has been significantly augmented with the Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, a well-known masterwork by Jusepe de Ribera, one of the most influential figures of the seventeenth century. Ribera, a Spanish-born artist, spent his entire career in Italy. By 1616 he had moved permanently to Naples, which was then part of the Spanish kingdom. He quickly became the dominant artistic figure there and subsequently influenced many Neapolitan masters including Salvator Rosa, Luca Giordano, Bernardo Cavallino and Mattia Preti; all of whom are represented in the NGV. Many of Ribera’s paintings were taken to Spain, thus his work also influenced many later Spanish masters including Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Alonso Cano, Francisco de Zurbaran and Diego Velázquez.
The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence is an important autograph painting, probably dating from the early 1620s. This work is now considered by most scholars to be the primary version after which at least eight copies and variants are known. It exemplifies Ribera’s blending of tenebrism (strong contrasts of dark and lightly painted areas) with an Emilian (a northern region of Italy) approach to classical Baroque painting that he absorbed looking at the works of Caravaggio and the Caravaggisti, Guido Reni, the Carracci and Correggio. Although tempered with Ribera’s earthy Spanish realism, it has flashes of bravura painting seen in his inventive brushwork, most notably in the way he drags his brush through heavy impasto to create painterly texture.
The complex composition depicts the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, which took place in Rome under the persecution of Emperor Valerian on 10 August 258. The Spanish-born Saint Lawrence was a deacon of the Church of Rome and was the keeper of its worldly and spiritual treasure, supposedly including the Holy Grail. Valerian sequestered the valuables of the Church whereupon Saint Lawrence disbursed the wealth among the needy and secreted important relics. He then gathered the poor of Rome and presented them to Valerian, stating that they were the true riches of the Church. Valerian immediately ordered his torture and execution.
In the late fourth century Saint Ambrose of Milan and the poet Prudentius disseminated the apocryphal legend of Saint Lawrence’s martyrdom by being burnt alive on a grill, the subject of this painting. Apparently during his ordeal, Saint Lawrence’s faith gave him such indomitable power that he demanded that his executioners turn him over, exclaiming that he was ‘done’ on one side. The subject was particularly appealing to artists from the fourteenth century onwards, probably because it permitted them to paint the mostly nude male figure of the saint illuminated by fire, burning coals or a divine light. As a scene where spirituality so assertively overcomes the corporeal, the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence was a favourite subject for artists during the Counter-Reformation.
Laurie Benson, Curator, International Art, NGV (in 2007)