- Date of Creation:
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- Current Location:
- Madrid, Spain
- Displayed at:
- Museo Nacional del Prado
- Museo Nacional del Prado
Ribera's twisted, gruesome painting depicts the terrible fate of the unfortunate villain from ancient Greek mythology, Tityus.
According to myth, Tityus was the son of Zeus and his mortal lover Elara, the daughter of King Orchomenus. In order to hide his pregnant lover from his fiercely jealous wife Hera, Zeus hid Elara deep, deep underground, where should would give birth with the greatest of pain. An enormous giant, the baby Tityus was so large that he split his mother's womb and had to be carried to term by the Earth Goddess Gaia.
Tityus proved to be a raging, violent, irrepressibly lustful creature, and upon discovering his existence Hera was only too glad to use the giant to her own ends. She inspired Tityus to try to rape Leto, the arrogant mother of Apollo (god of light, music, and poetry) and Artemis (goddess of wisdom and the hunt).
The two gods were always anxious to defend their mother and easily shot Tityus down with their arrows. However, they were unable to kill the monster: as a son of Zeus, Tityus was immortal. Therefore, as his punishment Tityus was sent to Hades, where he was tied down and doomed to have two vultures eternally peck out his liver (the seat of the passions for the ancient Greek), which re-grew with every new moon.
The grisly fate of Tityus was immortalized in Homer's The Odyssey vii. 372:
"I saw Tityus too,
son of the mighty goddess Earth-
sprawling there on the ground, spread over nine acres-
two vultures hunched on either side of him, digging into his liver,
breaking deep in the blood-sac, and he with his frantic hands
could never beat them off"
Ribera's Tityus is only one of two surviving paintings of his Four Damned Men series, which had both a political message and a Christian warning: these figures may be ancient Greek villains, but they could just as well be an ordinary man suffering the imaginable torments of hell.
The other surviving painting from the series, Ixion (see Related Works), is just as disturbing as Tityus.
This work by Ribera and others on the subject of the condemned -Tityus, Ixion, Tantalus and Sisyphus- were fairly popular during the Baroque period and often featured as palace decorations. They represented the overwhelming power of the ruling monarch or governing body against any and all opposition, even that of giants and demigods.
Ribera's Tityus was undoubtedly inspired by one of Titian's work from the mid-16th century on the same theme (see Related Works below).
Inevitably, Ribera takes the theme of the punishment of Tityus to a whole new level. Ribera's painting is notable for the following characteristics;
True to form, Ribera depicts this scene with the utmost of realistic, gory detail. Ribera loved to paint contorted, deformed, and sagging skin to demonstrate his ability to paint realistically, and Tityus is no exception: the giant's furrowed brow, gaping mouth, and gristly flesh are all depicted with maximum accuracy.
Sinister, terrifying tone:
Titian's Tityus may give a realistically gruesome depiction of a vulture devouring a man's entrails, but Ribera takes the terrifying quality of this story to a whole new level.
The entire painting is submerged in grim, hellish darkness; Tityus's body seems to twist and contort freely in an abstract space, and the diabolic bird of prey is almost completely submerged in the dark background, only his fiendishly gleaming eye and beak as he sucks up Tityus's glistening entrails are visible.
Tityus's screaming, contorted face is thrust into the viewer's space as his hands grapple vainly against his irrepressible torturers. Titian's painting may be a dynamic study of movement and contorted postures, but Ribera's version is so much more: it is impossible not to feel uncomfortable, even threatened in front of this canvas.
Ribera is a master at creating strange, psychologically disturbing images that immediately capture the viewer's imagination.
Use of technique:
Typical of Ribera's style up until 1632 (and even subsequently), Tityus is submerged in an intense, gloomy tenebrism that speaks to the enormous influence Caravaggio had on the young Spaniard.
Through the 1620s, Ribera began experimenting with a looser, more expressive brushstroke, such as that employed by Flemish artists like Rubens and van Dyck. This loose brushstroke became a signature of Ribera's style by 1632, as is already evident in his Tityus.
Works by Ribera:
Another disturbing mythological depiction by Ribera
Works by other artists:
Titian - Tityus, 1549:
Titian - Sisyphus, 1549:
In the mid-16th century, Titian had executed a series, the Furies or The Damned, including paintings of Tityus, Ixion, Sisyphus and Tantalus, for María de Hungría, the sister of the Spanish king Carlos V. The paintings hung at the Alcazár palace in Madrid (where two of them were destroyed in the great fire of 1734).
Ribera may have been born in Spain, but for most of his life he lived and worked in Italy and therefore may never have actually seen Titian's paintings of eternal suffering in person. He could have known them from prints, however, and regardless was certainly well acquainted with Titian's works in Italy.
Titian's version of this theme is, of course, quite different from Ribera's painting: the composition is far brighter and evidences a warmer, bolder palette, while far more accessories are apparent to allow the viewer to immediately identify the subject of the painting.
Furthermore, Titian's painting places less of an emphasis on the blood and gore of the scene: Tityus's face is turned away from the viewer, for example, so we are unable to get the maximum impact of the expression of his pain.
Although mythological subjects were less than abundant in Spanish painting, such subjects appear frequently in Ribera's oeuvre. Unsurprisingly, Ribera's mythological paintings tend towards the surprisingly dark, twisted, and bizarre.
Ribera's images are a world away from the mischievous, scampering nymphs and sensual gods and goddesses of Annibale Carracci or Bernini's elegant, classical figures. Instead, Ribera was inevitably attracted towards the grotesque: his mythological paintings, more often than not, reveal gods with sagging flesh or engaged in vicious acts of cruelty, as can be seen in Tityus.
The main characteristics of Ribera's mythological paintings include;
Intense Baroque drama
Often disturbing, violent themes
Typically, a dark, tenebristic style and an interested in contorted poses
The fact that Ribera was probably the most influential painter of the Spanish Baroque (even more influential than his far more famous compatriot, Velázquez) tends to be overshadowed by the fact that Ribera's often twisted, bizarre images have categorized the artist as a painter of the dark and bloody, and nothing more.
However, what many art enthusiasts do not know is that Ribera is much, much more than a mere painter of oddities. In fact, a closer look at Ribera's oeuvre reveals that the artist was as much a master of Baroque color, dynamism and grandeur as he was a master of Caraveggesque chiaroscuro and naturalism, and furthermore, Ribera's prints and paintings alike had an enormous impact on the development of Baroque art all over Europe.
Technically, Ribera is a painter of the Spanish Baroque: he was born in the Valencia region of Spain, and his work essentially determined the direction of art in that nation for the entire 17th century. Paradoxically, however, Ribera actually lived and worked in the Italian state of Naples for most of his life, stating that Spain was "a loving mother to foreigners and a very cruel stepmother to her own sons. "
Living in Italy, Ribera had exposure to classical and Renaissance art, making his artistic education far broader than any other Spanish artist, and subsequently his art also had a major influence on the development of Italian Baroque art.
Ribera can nonetheless be qualified as a Spanish artist, however, because during the 17th century Naples was actually a Spanish territory; in fact, his major patrons were not Italians, but the governing Spanish class as well as Flemish merchants within the city.
Like the other major painters of the Spanish Baroque, the majority of Ribera's paintings are devoted to religious subjects: pictures of the Virgin and child, biblical scenes, and, perhaps most famously, often grisly, gruesome depictions of the martyrdom of the saints.
Unlike some of his compatriots, however, Ribera was not limited to religious paintings; his oeuvre also includes a fair number of mythological subjects, portraits, and even a series devoted to the five senses. Furthermore, and most unusually for a Spanish artist, Ribera was quite adept at depicting the nude.
This breadth of scope reveals the impact that living and working in Italy had on Ribera: the artist was free from the strict moral and social restrictions on art that existed in Spain, and was also exposed to a wider variety of influences, most notably classical art and masterpieces of the Renaissance.
To read more about Ribera and his artworks please refer to the recommended reading list below.
• Brown, Jonathan. Jusepe de Ribera: Prints and Drawings. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973
• Darby, Delphine Fitz. "Ribera and the Blind Men. " The Art Bulletin 39.3 (Sept. 1957): 195-217.
• Felton, Craig, and William Jordan, Eds. Jusepe de Ribera, lo Spagnoletto, 1591-1652. Fort Worth: Kimbell Art Museum, 1982
• Pérez Sánchez, Alfonso, et al. Jusepe de Ribera, 1591-1652. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992
• Piper, Anson. "Ribera's 'Jacob' and the Tragic Sense of Life. " Hispanica 46.2 (May 1963): 279-282
• Scholz-Hänsel, Michael. Jusepe de Ribera, 1591-1652. Cologne: Könemann, 2000
• Trapier, Elizabeth du Gué. Ribera. New York: The Hispanic Society of America, 1952
• Wind, Barry. "A foul and pestilent congregation:" Images of "freaks" in Baroque art. Brookfield: Ashgate Publishing, 1998