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Ribera, Jusepe de - VM - James Romaine

Jusepe de Ribera: The Adoration of the Shepherds

Making the Invisible Visible

by James Romaine

The work of the Spanish-born baroque artist Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652) is characterized by a visual method of transformed naturalism. Uniting narrative and symbolism, Ribera translated a careful observation of nature into the material of paint as a means of making the invisible visible.

In The Adoration of the Shepherds, completed just two years before his death and now in the collection of the Louvre Museum, Ribera applied this method of transformed naturalism to a sacred narrative motif. This 1650 painting unites the observation of nature with sacred symbolism to focus his presumed Catholic Reformation viewer on the devotional meaning of the nativity.

Since Ribera’s creative process began with a study of observation, our process engaging his work should also begin with a careful examination of his motif and structure. Ribera’s design connects our eye, the process by which we read the image, and our imagination, how we interpret what we see. His composition unites a complex arrangement of figures, so that we read the entire narrative motif as single devotional moment, fixed on the infant Christ.

As we begin reading this composition in the lower left, our attention is drawn toward the central figure of Christ. The diagonal pose of his body directs us toward the upper right. His body is posed at a diagonal in one direction. However, the expression on his face is in the opposite direction. If we draw a line from Christ’s feet to his head and another line through his eyes, these lines from an X. As the visual and spiritual focal point, towards which everything in Ribera’s painting converges, the figure of Christ is the center that unites the composition.

Stationed protectively over the manger is Joseph. Gazing affectionately at Christ, Joseph’s arms are crossed in reverence. He is a model for Ribera’s viewer of faithful devotion. Continuing our lower-left-to-upper-right reading of the composition, the woman holding a basket in the background stops us and redirects us toward the left.

Across the background, there are two scenes that, in sequence, depict the angels’ announcement to the shepherds. This distant landscape forms a visual bridge over the top of the composition. However, so that we don’t exit the composition’s upper left, there is a strategically placed diagonal line, camouflaged within the motif as a beam of wood. This sends our attention us back in the direction of Christ.

Even the shepherd with his hat raised is a significant part of our being led through the composition. The raised hat is both part of the narrative and a part of the composition. But both direct our attention and devotion toward the figure of infant in the manger.

A narrative image with a devotional purpose, Jusepe de Ribera’s Adoration of the Shepherds is a carefully designed motif that draws the viewer from every compositional direction toward the figure of Christ. This makes us a participant in drawing closer to the infant in the manger.

Having surveyed the overall devotion-oriented composition of Ribera’s The Adoration of the Shepherds, let’s study some of its details. Ribera created amazing illusions of a complex range of textures. Just look across the kneeling shepherd at the right, from his ruddy face, to his beard, to fleece he wears, to the layers of his tattered jacket. Ribera has lined up a sumptuous sequence of fabrics, colors, and textures. This rustic figure, as well as the rock on which he kneels, anticipates the 19th-century realism of Gustave Courbet. It is no wonder that Ribera has proudly signed his name on this rock.

The hay spills out of a partly broken manger, a detail that gives visual authenticity to the motif of Christ’s humble birth. But this is where Ribera’s method pivots from what we can see to the visualization of a sacred realm that is beyond what we can see. This battered crib reminded Ribera’s Catholic Reformation viewer that Christ had been born into a world in need of spiritual repair.

Ribera depicts a devotional moment that is full of sacred symbolism. Perhaps the most obvious example of Ribera’s combination of naturalism and symbolism is the bound lamb in the foreground. It might be that the shepherds have brought this lamb, perhaps their only wealth, as an offering to Christ. However, this bound lamb also evokes the sacrifice that Christ will make on behalf of these saintly herdsmen.

The other animals also support Ribera’s method of making sacred symbolism more believable through visual naturalism. An ox nudges its nose into the manger. And the donkey at the left has an especially alert expression. While the ox and the ass are fairly common in depictions of the Adoration of the Shepherds, Ribera’s donkey evidences a remarkable degree of spiritual consciousness. These animals evoke what the Jewish prophet Isaiah wrote. “The ox knows its master, the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand” (Isaiah 1:3).  

Fitting with Ribera’s Catholic Reformation purpose, the Virgin Mary is given special attention. A simple maiden, she is beautiful, without being idealized. Throughout his career, Ribera tended toward rustic colors, and this work amply demonstrates how much he could accomplish within a narrow range of tones. Ribera would only occasionally and strategically include brilliantly saturated colors, such as the lapis blue of Virgin’s cloak, as means of focusing the viewer’s attention.

Jusepe de Ribera’s Adoration of the Shepherds demonstrates his capacity to visually unite naturalism and symbolism. The naturalism makes the symbolism immediate and believable. The symbolism gives the naturalism a sense of spiritual meaning and identity. This work visualizes a scene of recognition and devotion with the purpose of instilling these in the viewer. As we begin the Advent season, may this painting orient and focus our spiritual attention.

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Jusepe de Ribera: Adoration of the Shepherds, 1650, oil on canvas, 239 x 181 cm. The Louvre, Paris.

Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652) was a Spanish painter and printmaker, noted for his baroque dramatic realism and his depictions of religious and mythological subjects. He was born in Spain but spent most of his life in Italy. Little is known of his life in Spain, though he is said by the painter and biographer Antonio Palomino de Castro y Velasco to have received his first training there under Francisco Ribalta (1565 –1628). It is not known when he went to Italy, but there is evidence that as a young man he worked in Parma and Rome. In 1616 he married in Naples, then under Spanish rule, where he remained the rest of his life. In 1626 he signed as a member of the Roman Academy of St. Luke and in 1631 as a knight of the Papal Order of Christ, although he always retained his Spanish identity.

James Romaine is Professor of Art History at Lander University in Greenwood, SC, USA. He is the co-founder of the Association of Scholars of Christianity in the History of Art (ASCHA). His publications include Art as Spiritual Perception: Essays in Honor of E. John Walford (Crossway) and Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art (Penn State University Press, 2018). His videos can be seen on YouTube at SeeingArtHistory: https://youtu.be/xbcjY8hOCoY.

The video for this Sunday of Romaine’s Advent at the Louvre can be seen here. It is about The Holy Family with Saint Anne by Rembrandt van Rijn.

ArtWay Visual Meditation December 11, 2022