Jusepe de Ribera
Oil on canvas
57 1/2 x 42 in. (146.1 x 106.7 cm)
Meadows Museum, SMU, Dallas. Algur H. Meadows Collection, MM.77.02
Listen to Adam Jasienski, assistant professor of art history at Southern Methodist University discuss this work (1:24 minutes)
Jusepe de Ribera (Spanish, 1591–1652)
Portrait of a Knight of Santiago, c. 1635
by Adam Jasienski, assistant professor of art history at Southern Methodist University
What I find the most interesting in this painting is how it registers the sitter's age. First, look at the glasses. To a seventeenth-century viewer, these could have conveyed an impression of intellect, much as they do today, but their inclusion also inevitably reveals the knight’s increasingly poor eyesight. Other telltale markers of his advancing age are the receding hairline, the white hairs starting to show in the whiskers and the beard, the rotund torso, and finally, the wrinkles in his forehead. These appear almost carved out from the surface of the paint-coated canvas in Ribera's signature, sculptural style of painting. Look at the painting from the side, you'll be able to see their depth, their three-dimensionality more clearly.
There's no shying away from the acknowledgment that the human body changes with time. Although that might happen, the artist and his subject appear to be saying “it also means that we acquire expertise; we learn from our experiences.” After all, he could have forbidden the painter from adding graying hairs, or wrinkles, or those thick-rimmed, round glasses to the painting. But instead, the sitter of the portrait presents a stoic, even proud acceptance of his maturity.
Listen to Meadows Museum docent Jan Clay discuss this work (3:06 minutes)
Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652)
Portrait of a Knight of Santiago, c. 1635
by Jan Clay, Meadows Museum docent
We are viewing a Portrait of a Knight of Santiago, painted by the artist Jusepe de Ribera. As we look at our Knight of Santiago, we don't actually know his exact identity, but because of his carefully crafted image in this portrait, we can make several logical assumptions about him. Ribera has included powerful status symbols that indicate this gentleman's station in life:
Perhaps the most noticeable item is the sumptuous scarlet sash, dramatically draped across the knight's chest. It is very effective at immediately capturing the viewer's attention. The fabric is cleverly shaded to give it a shiny quality, like a silk satin, which communicates: this is expensive! It was also an important political statement, as he was a supporter of the Thirty Years War.
If we look at the black fabric of his garment, it is almost underwhelming in contrast to the other textures in this portrait. The fabric appears quite subtle, but the statement may have been that black fabric was extremely expensive to produce.
Hands are one of the most difficult parts of the figure to portray, and Ribera has succeeded masterfully in this area. These well-lit hands are also holding the prestigious symbols of his high-ranking military status. The sword in his left and the baton in his right identify him as a Captain General in the Spanish army.
Also worth noting is the use of dramatic lighting; there appears to be a light source coming from the top left of the painting. We see that the right side of the sitter's face is lit. The light reflects off the lenses of his glasses and casts a shadow on the left side of his face. The use of dramatic light was typical of Baroque art, in general, but Ribera was known for depicting figures in this manner. This dramatic lighting also gives Ribera an opportunity to capture the delicate exchange of shadow and reflection in the lens of those fabulous ebony spectacles, which makes sure this accessory is one that can’t be missed. Spectacles were also quite fashionable during this period.
Notice the golden shell-shaped pendant on his chest with a red cross. This pendant is a symbol of the military order the Knights of Santiago—a very prestigious and noble order bestowed upon elite Spaniards able to prove their descent from generations of Christians.
As an interesting aside, in Spain during this time, there was little social mobility; you were usually born into your profession or class. Ribera was extremely ambitious and enterprising. He managed to reinvent himself from the son of a shoemaker to the painter of Viceroys. He also understood the importance of the image one portrays and perhaps even branding as he often signed his paintings as “el Español" or “the Spaniard.” As an artist painting exclusively in Italy, this gave him a marketable, exclusive, and special quality.
As humans, we often strive to present an idealized image of ourselves for many reasons. This was true 400 years ago as much as it is today.