A popular subject in Counter–Reformation Italy and Spain, Ribera's profoundly moving work portrays the apostle's final moments before he is to be flayed alive. The viewer is meant to empathize with Bartholomew, whose body seemingly bursts through the surface of the canvas, and whose outstretched arms embrace a mystical light that illuminates his flesh. His piercing eyes, open mouth, and petitioning left hand bespeak an intense communion with the divine; yet this same hand draws our attention to the instruments of his torture, symbolically positioned in the shape of a cross. Transfixed by Bartholomew's active faith, the executioner seems to have stopped short in his actions, and his furrowed brow and partially illuminated face suggest a moment of doubt, with the possibility of conversion.
The use of sharp light–dark contrasts and extreme naturalism reveal the influence of Caravaggio, whose work Ribera would have seen both in Rome and in Naples, where he lived from 1616 until the end of his life. Yet unlike Caravaggio, Ribera has enlivened the canvas with a variety of brushstrokes and textures, allowing the viewer to become further involved with this psychologically charged painting.
More information on this painting can be found in the Gallery publication Italian Paintings of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, which is available as a free PDF https://www.nga.gov/content/dam/ngaweb/research/publications/pdfs/italian-paintings-17th-and-18th-centuries.pdf
lower right: Jusepe de Ribera español / F. 1634
Bought in Italy c. 1810 by Richard Barré Dunning, Lord Ashburton (of the first creation) for his uncle-in-law George Cranstoun, Lord Corehouse [d. 1850], Corehouse, Scotland; by descent to Colonel Alstair Joseph Edgar Cranstoun of that Ilk by 1960; (his sale, Sotheby's, London, 6 July 1983, no. 30). Private collection, London; (sale, Sotheby's, London, 4 July 1990, no. 83); purchased by NGA.
- Loan Exhibition of Works by Old Masters, Edinburgh, 1883 (cat. not located).
- Art for the Nation: Gifts in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1991, 64-65, color repro.
- Jusepe de Ribera 1591-1652, Castel Sant'Elmo, Certosa di San Martino, Naples (no. 1.52, color repro); Museo del Prado, Madrid (no. 61, color repro.); The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (no. 30, color repro.), 1991-1992 (cat. by Nicola Spinosa).
- Caravaggio's 'The Taking of Christ': Saints and Sinners in Baroque Painting, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1999, brochure, no. 3, repro.
- Darkness & Light: Caravaggio & His World, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003-2004, no. 47, repro.
- Felton, Craig. "Jusepe de Ribera: A Catalogue Raisonné." 2 vols. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, 1971: 2:451, no. X-87 (rejects attribution to Ribera).
- Spinosa, Nicola. In L'opera completa del Ribera. Milan, 1978: 129, no. 259, as Workshop of Ribera.
- Gingold, Diane J. and Elizabeth A.C. Weil. The Corporate Patron. New York, 1991: 108, color repro.
- Kopper, Philip. America's National Gallery of Art: A Gift to the Nation. New York, 1991: 325, color repro.
- Felton, Craig. "Out of the Shadows: Jusepe de Ribera." Apollo 136 (1992): 144.
- Jordan, William. "Naples, Madrid, New York: Ribera." [Exhibition review] The Burlington Magazine 134 (1992): 625.
- Pérez Sánchez, Alfonso E. and Nicola Spinosa. Jusepe de Ribera, 1591-1652. Exh. cat. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1992: 105, no. 30.
- National Gallery of Art. National Gallery of A rt, Washington, Rev. ed. Washington, D.C.,1995: 88, repro.
- De Grazia, Diane, and Eric Garberson, with Edgar Peters Bowron, Peter M. Lukehart, and Mitchell Merling. Italian Paintings of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1996: 214-218, color repro. 215.
- Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 156-157, no. 117, color repro.
- Glendinning, Nigel. "The 'Terrible Sublime': Ribera in Britain and Ireland." In Spanish Art in Britain and Ireland, 1750-1920: Studies in Reception, In Memory of Enriqueta Harris Frankfort. Edited by Nigel Glendinning and Hilary Macartney. London, 2010: 191, fig. 40.
- Harris, Neil. Capital Culture: J. Carter Brown, the National Gallery of Art, and the Reinvention of the Museum Experience. Chicago and London, 2013: 420-421.
The support is a twill fabric prepared with a thin, smooth reddish brown ground. Over this is a second, dark layer, black or possibly brown, with a rough texture that suggests application with a palette knife only under the main area of the composition, as visible in x-radiographs. The paint was manipulated skillfully to express different textures. Thin wispy strokes were used to modify the fluidly applied flesh tones, which also show the wet-into-wet application of black paint. A pointed object was dragged through the still-wet paint of the executioner's beard to create the texture of the hair. X-radiographs reveal two artist's changes. Saint Bartholomew's right forearm has changed position, with the previous arm left unfinished, without a hand underneath it. The fingertips of the right hand were also slightly shifted.
The original tacking margins have been removed, but cusping is present along all four sides. Two long tears in the fabric support have been repaired, which can be seen in x-radiographs. Aside from losses associated with these tears, there are only minor and carefully inpainted losses scattered throughout and some abrasion in the executioner's chest. The varnish is clear. The painting was treated most recently by Herbert Lank after 1983.