'Jusepe de Ribera - a Spaniard from the city of Valencia, member of the Accademia di San Luca in Rome, knight of the Order of Christ of Portugal, court painter to successive viceroys in the kingdom of Naples - ranked among the most innovative and important artists of his day. His works were collected by King Philip IV, the grandees of Spain and prominent religious institutions in Naples' (Craig Felton in Jusepe de Ribera, lo Spagnoletto, exhibition catalogue, Forth Worth 1982, p.44). In 1616, after travelling in Northern Italy and visiting Rome, he settled in Naples, a rich and valued part of the Spanish royal domain, and quickly established himself as one of the founders, and perhaps the greatest master of true Neapolitan painting.
Ribera's mature style combines Caravaggio's sense of drama and penetrating eye for naturalistic detail with a more fluid technique and a lyrical sense of surface design inspired by Guido Reni. Whereas Roman art at this time oscillated uncompromisingly between the formal demands of classical decorum and narrative precision on the one hand and painterly proto-baroque exuberance on the other, in Naples the greatest works of art, and above all the highly influential mature paintings of Ribera, combine an overpowering physical naturalism with an almost abstract intensity of human and spiritual emotion.
Ribera painted several series of portrait-like images of the Apostles, or Apostolados, throughout his career, and they are among his most powerful single-figure compositions (see A.E. Pérez-Sánchez, in the Spanish edition of the exhibition catalogue, Ribera, Museo del Prado, Madrid, 1992, p. 248 for a discussion of the documentation concerning several such series in Spanish 17th and 18th Century collections). One of the most famous Apostolados is the near complete series in the Prado, which is generally dated to circa 1630-32. Although the present work slightly predates this series, it nonetheless accords stylistically with a number of figures in it. This can be seen in the turning of the Saint's head, the placement of the hands, and the way in which Ribera plays with the rhythms of the drapery.
We are grateful to Professor Nicola Spinosa (private communication, 28 March 2003) for confirming the attribution to Ribera and for proposing a dating of the present work to circa 1630-32. He describes it as a composition of 'qualità altissima' and notes another version of the composition (private collection, Naples; unknown dimensions), which he lists in his 1978 monograph on the artist (see L'Opera completa del Ribera, Milan, 1978, p. 102, no. 63).