“All property should be held in common (Omnia sunt communia) and should be distributed to each according to his needs, as the occasion required. Any prince, count, or lord who did not want to do this, after first being warned about it, should be beheaded or hanged.”
—Pastor Thomas Müntzer (1488–1525)
“Baroque art was wrought under the strain of change during a warfare that was as wide as Europe and that conscripted art for propaganda more consciously and vehemently than any age has done until our own.”
—Curator Hyatt Mayor (1901–1980)
DALLAS — In the 1630s drawing “Acrobats on a Loose Wire,” a frolicsome piece by Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652), four performers freestyle on a loose tightrope. On the left, a figure latched on by his legs is holding a second man dangling from a looped rope. Ribera transposed these two men into another drawing from the same time, “Group of Figures with a hanged Man being taken down from a Tree.” Here, the pendulous performer becomes an executed man holding a crucifix while being lowered to the earth. The loop is now a noose, the man a martyr. In the second drawing, two other men climb on the tree for no apparent reason, despite the danger. To the right, men gaze into the distance as a mother clasps her naked baby and gestures to a passerby, who lifts his hat politely. The exchange probably goes something like: “Great day, ma’am.” “Indeed, but look at that hoopla down yonder. He’s dead.” It’s a baffling scenario, but an apt representation of Ribera’s terrific bent towards horror.
A leading Counter-Reformation artist who was born in Spain, Ribera worked his entire career in Italy after Protestantism was squashed there — around 1600, when the Baroque period of art began. The artist was a prolific draftsman and printer, which set him apart from his vanguard elder Caravaggio. Between Heaven and Hell: The Drawings of Jusepe de Ribera at the Meadows Museum is the most comprehensive exhibition to date of the Spaniard’s works on paper, with frequent glimpses into a wonderfully dark imagination. Most of Ribera’s drawings were not studies for larger paintings, but projects of their own ends. They served as inexpensive works that brought him side income and examples of his skill that he could distribute to those seeking commissions, such as Spanish viceroys who ruled the city where he lived, Naples. His subjects, all of which are represented in this show, vary more than any other artist of his time, ranging from saints, martyrs, gods, and heroes to corporeal punishment, urban and rural scenes, and bizarre fantasies. They always contain figures, mostly men.
Of the known drawings by Ribera (157 sheets), roughly a quarter show men tied to trees in impressively uncomfortable ways: upside down, the standard “we’re holding you for ransom” wrap, and some that look like rock climbing accidents. Why so many half-naked men tethered to trunks? Not exactly S&M — or, perhaps “M” — Ribera’s obsession with tortured men was driven by interests in anatomy and iconography. He drew novel poses with utmost fidelity to the human form, frequently within dramas that depict fidelity and sacrifice to the Roman Catholic Church, which was then under threat.
Before his torture and execution in 1525, the German Protestant pastor Thomas Müntzer — a heretical contemporary of Martin Luther — led the Peasants’ War while flying a rainbow flag. It was a religious symbol of Yahweh’s covenant with Noah (Genesis 9:8-17) and the “Kingdom come” the ex-Catholic wanted to establish by blade in the here and now. In time, Karl Marx and his collaborator Friedrich Engels would find in Müntzer a model for radical revolt, with Engels’s essay “The Peasant War in Germany” (1850) stacking society this way: The “peasants and plebeians,” whose “boldest expression [was] in Müntzer,” are at the bottom. The “middle-class moderate Lutheran” stratum are lay princes, lower nobility, and looters of Catholic churches. On top are “conservative Catholics,” who “embraced all the elements interested in maintaining the existing imperial power.” These three groups would become the proletariat, small capitalists, and bourgeoisie in Marxist parlance.
The Roman Catholic Church responded to Protestant threats by “conscript[ing] art for propaganda,” as Metropolitan Museum curator Hyatt Mayor once noted, in a new style codified at the Council of Trent (1545–63). Ribera, following Caravaggio (but not overly influenced by him), was a hired talent. The aesthetic agenda was to steady Catholic priests, seminarians, and defenders of Church rule against attacks, as rival Protestant sovereignties arose. The images were also meant to express an earnest, bare-bones faith, in an effort to engage lay believers. The Church wanted pictures stripped of the wealth, decoration, and lasciviousness that Protestants denounced — like, for example, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. No more of that.
Immediately before the Council of Trent began, a first-of-its-kind medical volume appeared. De humani corporis fabrica (1543) was the first anatomy book drawn entirely from dissected humans, the corpses of executed criminals. (A fourth-edition copy at Brown University is bound in human skin.) Physician Andreas Vesalius offered Europe perfectly detailed, unflinching images of flayed and splayed men, many cast in poses of religious longing and immanent death. It’s a scientific work but also premodern, making it inextricable from theology. De humani was circulated in artists’ guilds like Ribera’s. He drew from live models, not existing images or casts, and his renderings of flopping flesh have a remarkable naturalism. He took the Catholic Church’s idea of bare bones faith to an unsettlingly literal degree.
The venerated Saint Sebastian was a favored subject for Ribera, with 10 renderings of him appearing in the new drawings catalogue raisonné accompanying the exhibition (not all of them are in the show, which was first staged at the Prado). In “Saint Sebastian seated and attached to a Tree” (late 1620s), Ribera renders foreshortened legs, upward-stretched arms, a dropped-back head, expressive hands, and a twisted torso, all with impressive anatomical accuracy and theatrical conviction. The work suggests a man caught between agony and ecstasy. His right hand goes limp as his left opens up to the divine; his head falls back, directing itself to the sky as he nears unconsciousness. This precarious state of being, somewhere between life and death, is entirely convincing in Ribera’s work (and an unlikely precedent for Robert Longo’s popular Men in the Cities series). It’s one of the more peaceful drawings to come from this time of violence and obligatory allegiances.
On the other hand, “Apollo and Marsyas” (1637) is Ribera going NC-17 with gore. The most monstrous work in the show, it combines his multiple obsessions: guy tied to tree, torture, martyrdom, creative poses, anatomical exactitude, and tranquility joined with pain. It represents the tale of Marsyas, who’s shown screaming while Apollo flays his skin as if playing a harp. In the background, men, perhaps saytrs, recoil at the screeching, a far cry from Ribera’s comedic drawings like “Masked Man with Small Figures Clambering Up his Body” (late 1620s). Though not a religious scene, the composition is akin to upside-down crucifixions such as “Study for a Crucifixion of Saint Peter” (mid 1620s), on view in a nearby room.
Between Heaven and Hell gently unfolds the inner workings of Ribera’s strategic perversity. It brings to American audiences 47 drawings — each deft in execution and handleable in size — from a world marked, like our own, by brutality. The difference is that Ribera’s was an age of unrefined war, when the methods of killing were so much less efficient than ours.
Between Heaven and Hell: The Drawings of Jusepe de Ribera continues at the Meadows Museum (5900 Bishop Blvd, Dallas, Texas) through June 11.
Editor’s note: The author’s travel and lodgings were paid for by Visit Dallas.