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St Mary of Egypt
17th Century
Born 1591 Spain, Died 1652
St Mary of Egypt
[Santa Maria Egiziaca]
Oil on canvas
88 x 71 cm  [HxW]
Museo Civico " G.Filangeri", Napoli

This is a late work by one of the greatest 17th-century artists in Europe, of Spanish origin but active mainly in Naples. It portrays a subject often repeated by the artist for his patrons with a similar composition and is in accordance with the mainly devotional approach to saints and to the blessed imposed by the Catholic Counter-Reformation. St Mary of Egypt, shown three-quarters against a background illuminated from above, repented for her past as a courtesan, choosing to live as a hermit and to dedicate herself entirely to prayer and sacred meditation: this is also alluded to by the inclusion of a still life with bread and a skull placed on the rock. The skull symbolises the transience of life, while the three loaves, which allude to the Eucharist, also recall their miraculous multiplication during the 47 years that the saint spent in penitence after her conversion. Dated 1651, one year before the death of the artist, the work belonged to a period in which the vigorous realism of Ribera’s early works — made in Rome and Naples during the first thirty years of the 17th century, taking up Caravaggio’s luminism and the expressive and dramatic approach originally adopted in Spain by the mystical culture of the Counter-Reformation — had toned down under the influence of “Neo-Venetian” painters working in Rome around 1630, and had turned more to luminous naturalism and to a more composed expressive intensity. This tendency can be seen in Ribera as from the mid-1630s in several paintings of sacred and profane, and in biblical, evangelical or mythological subjects with saints, prophets and philosophers of Antiquity portrayed without the slightest rhetoric, with a new and greater ability to render the inner psychology, and with more intimate participation in personal and sentimental aspects. The pictorial rendering is distinguished by its use of substantial chromatic matter and its increasingly precious tones, which are now warm and luminous, as in the great examples of radiant and Mediterranean painting in 16th-century Venice, from Titian to Paolo Veronese.

Maia Confalone

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