Blind suffering: Ribera’s non-visual epistemology of martyrdom

Itay Sapir (Université du Québec à Montréal)


One of the oft-neglected aspects of early Baroque painting is its critical stance vis-à-vis renaissance’s ideal of pure and perfect visibility. The origins of this standpoint can be traced to the art of Caravaggio, but it is the Hispano-Neapolitan painter Jusepe de Ribera who brings it to a culmination of sorts, in a sustained pictorial quest for a novel sensorial pragmatics. Ribera’s representations of martyrdom, in particular, create a fascinating play between saints’ tactile experience of their suffering, their complex, often-deficient visual perception, and the viewer’s limited access to visual information when reconstructing the narrative on the basis of pictorial evidence. In this article, I analyse Ribera’s creation of mock-tactile textures through purely visual techniques, and the implications of such an artistic method for the hierarchy of the senses in the devotional context of Neapolitan culture in the first half of the seventeenth century. Gilles Deleuze’s analysis of Francis Bacon in The Logic of Sensation and Steven Connor’s observations on skin’s place in modern culture are brought also to bear on Ribera’s epidermal painting and its subversion of ocularcentrism.

Keywords: Ribera, Caravaggio, haptic, sensorial hierarchies, martyrdom, Deleuze, Bacon, Connor

Full text: OAJ_issue4_Sapir (PDF, 1 MB)


Biographical note

Itay Sapir is assistant professor of art history at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), Montreal, Canada. Among his publications on sixteenth and seventeenth-century Italian painting is his study Ténèbres sans leçons: esthétique et épistémologie de la peinture ténébriste romaine 1595–1610 (Peter Lang, 2012), analysing the work of Adam Elsheimer and Caravaggio as reflecting a contemporaneous epistemological crisis. More recently, Sapir has published the article ‘The Birth of Mediterranean Culture: Claude Lorrain’s Port Scenes Between the Apollonian and the Dionysian’, in the Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz (LVI:1, 2014). He currently works on Ribera’s sensorial epistemology (a project supported by a grant from the Québec Fonds de recherche société et culture) and on representations of the moment of death in early modern painting (funded by a Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant).