Signed and dated 1632, this picture was made at the height of Jusepe de Ribera’s career. By that date he had become the leading painter in Naples, a city that was then at the peak of its power, the second largest urban center in Europe, alive with artistic creativity and a destination for painters from the rest of the Continent. In this landscape, which was at times unsparingly competitive, Ribera dominated. He executed highly important commissions for the ruling Spanish viceroys, three of which he served during his time in the city, and provided pictures for a burgeoning market of local and foreign patrons, drawn to his dramatic, magnetic naturalism.
In this prolific period of activity Ribera covered a range of subject matter with startling originality and virtuosity. He produced the renowned series of philosophers for the Duke of Alcalà, together with many images of saints, in states of penitence, ecstasy and reflection. This powerful depiction of Saint Paul, sword held upright in his right hand and a book in his left, can be compared to the three-quarter-length picture of Saint Paul, of the same year, in the Hispanic Society of America in New York, and the Saint James the Great (Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow), the latter seemingly using the same model in a very similar pose, at a slightly younger age. The intense lighting and focused gaze in the present picture brings an immediacy to the composition that is at once arresting and engaging. Spinosa (op. cit.) draws further parallels with other pictures made during an intense period of activity, including the Saint James in the Museo de Bellas Artes, Seville.