Jusepe de Ribera and Assistants, Saint Paul the Hermit, c. 1640

Emaciated man wearing thatched skirt reclines in a cave and looks at a skull

Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652) and Assistants

Saint Paul the Hermit

c. 1640

Oil on canvas

55 1/4 x 78 5/8 in. (140.3 x 199.7 cm)

Meadows Museum, SMU, Dallas. Algur H. Meadows Collection, MM.75.01

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Object Label

Of the many works produced by Jusepe de Ribera, perhaps the most influential were his images of penitent saints in meditation and far removed from society, a genre exemplified by this painting of Saint Paul the Hermit. This naturalistic observation of Paul’s asceticism emphasizes the saint’s devotion to a spiritual ideal. Ribera’s paintings of penitent saints, distinguished by their dramatic lighting and unapologetic realism resulting in their ability to illicit a strong emotional response from the viewer, were widely imitated by Spanish artists in the latter half of the seventeenth century.

Saint Paul the Hermit is known as one of Christianity’s earliest religious recluses. Secluded in a cave, Paul lived a life of strict solitude, self-denial, and religious contemplation. This exemplary behavior no doubt provided a satisfying model for Counter-Reformation viewers, who, in their own pursuit of penance, would have seen their own religious practices referenced in the rosary held by the saint, and would have recognized the skull in the lower right corner as a memento mori (or reminder of one’s mortality) that warns of the importance of spiritual salvation in the face of death’s inevitability.