Francisco Ribalta
Spanish Baroque Painter, Caravaggist: Expert in Tenebrism.

Pin it

Christ Embracing St Bernard (1625-27)
Prado Museum. One of Ribalta's
greatest religious paintings.

Francisco Ribalta (1565–1628)


Christ Embracing St Bernard

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.


One of the most influential Old Masters of the early 17th century Spanish Baroque, and an important contributor to the Vatican's propaganda campaign of Catholic Counter-Reformation Art, the painter Francisco Ribalta was active in Madrid and Valencia, where he was occupied mainly with commissions for devotional oil painting and altarpiece art, on behalf of various religious authorities. His importance to Spanish painting lies in the fact that he was the first native painter in Spain to use Tenebrist lighting effects in his scenes of intense religious fervour. Only a single work from his early period survives, a modest example of Mannerism entitled Nailing to the Cross (1582, Hermitage, St Petersburg). Until about 1610, Ribalta's style was relatively varied, as he borrowed from various sources including prints by Albrecht Durer (1471–1528) and the Mannerists. But after about 1610 he adopted a more realistic style which was more sombre and monumental, with dramatic lighting in the manner of Caravaggio's tenebrism. It is not known whether he visited Italy, where Caravaggism had acquired a considerable following, or whether tenebrist paintings were available in Spain as a result of Spanish rule of the Neapolitan kingdom. Ribalta's most famous masterpiece is Christ Embracing St Bernard (1625-27, Prado Museum, Madrid).



Note: Tenebrism was a style of painting which uses dramatic illumination to direct the viewer's attention, and contrasts of light and dark (chiaroscuro) to boost the three-dimensionality of human figures. Although Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) is credited with pioneering tenebrism, it was developed significantly by Caravaggio (1571–1610) during the early period of Baroque art, who used it to great effect. To what extent Ribalta's tenebrism was influenced by Caravaggio, is unclear. Some historians consider that Ribalta was developing tenebrist tendencies before Caravaggio's works became widely known.


Little is known of Ribalta's apprenticeship. Born in Catalonia in 1565, it is known that he travelled to Madrid in 1581 where he studied paintings in the Royal Collection. In the capital, he met Italian Mannerist artists who were decorating the Escorial Palace and, under their influence, developed his early style of art. In particular he was influenced by Philip II's court painter Juan Fernandez de Navarrete (1526–79, also called El Mundo) and Sebastiano del Piombo (1485–1547) whose Mannerist works - famous for their combination of Venetian school colours and monumental forms of the Roman school - were found in Spain. When King Philip II died in 1598, and with him many of the Royal commissions, Ribalta moved to Valencia, where he set up a large and thriving workshop devoted to religious art under the patronage of Juan de Ribera, the city's archbishop. Sadly, many of Ribalta's paintings have been lost, but surviving works rank alongside the finest offerings from any Italian Baroque artist.

Christ Embracing St Bernard

His most famous work is Christ Embracing St Bernard (1625-27, Prado Museum, Madrid), which presents a synthesis of naturalism and religious intensity that exemplifies the art of the 17th century Catholic Counter-Reformation. In this scene of devout piety - believed by some art historians to be based on Ribalta's drawings of a Caravaggio altarpiece - St Bernard is depicted as a thin figure with gaunt cheeks. He embraces Christ, his eyes closed with a half smile on his face indicating his whole body and soul is in deep rapture. As Christ descends from the cross to embrace him, the Saint's body goes limp and it is Christ who ends up supporting him. Ribalta's sculptural use of chiaroscuro enables him to make this religious experience appear realistic yet not commonplace.


Ribalta died in Valencia in 1628. As an artist, his use of light and shadow to boost the solidity of his figures (chiaroscuro) and to control the drama of his scenes (tenebrism) was a major influence on Baroque painting in Spain - most notably on artists like Francisco Zurbaran (1598-1664). At any rate it helped to pave the way for other Spanish Baroque artists like Velazquez (1599-1660), Jusepe Ribera (1591-1652) and other members of the Spanish School. His son, Juan Ribalta (c.1597-1628) was also a successful artist and exponent of caravaggism, but unfortunately died young. Works by Ribalta can be seen in some of the best art museums in Europe, including the Prado Museum in Madrid.


Known oil paintings by Francisco Ribalta include:

- Martyrdom of St Catherine (1600) Hermitage, St Petersburg.
- Retable of Santiago (1610) Church of Algemesi.
- The Vision of Father Simon (1612) Tate Collection, London.
- St Francis Comforted by an Angel (c.1620) Prado, Madrid.
- The Vision of St Francis (c.1620) Prado, Madrid.
- Christ Embracing St Bernard (1625-27) Prado, Madrid.
- Portacoeli Retable (1626-7) Valencia.


• For more biographical details about famous Spanish painters, see: Homepage.
• For analysis of important pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

Visual Artists, Greatest
© All rights reserved.