Colnaghi Foundation Journal 02 - Page 48



48
Francisco Ribalta’s Vision of Father Simó: British taste and the legacy of Sebastiano del Piombo in Spanish painting
Unfortunately, no trace of the altarpiece’s original
location survives as the church of San Andrés was
rebuilt in 1686, and then sacked in the Spanish Civil
War.66 Within a further four months, on 24 January
1613, Ribalta on commission of the Cathedral
Chapter of Valencia was paid to paint three portraits
of Jeronimo Simó, all now lost.67 It is specified that
these were intended to be presented by the Chapter to
Philip III, to his chief minister, the Duke of Lerma,
and to the pope, Paul V. It is likely that Ribalta had
himself met or seen Father Simó while alive, or at
the very least examined the corpse of the recently
deceased priest. Produced immediately after Simó’s
death, these images show how the move for his
canonization had acquired not just a purely Valencian
or even Spanish dimension, but also international
impetus.
In this image once again it is Christ who dominates.
The participation of Father Simó in the event
is increased by the position of his hands, which
would have been immediately recognizable to
contemporaries as the orantes gesture: that is, the
gesture made by the priest as the bread and wine are
transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ.
These hands draw a direct link between Simó’s
priestly role and its consequences, the re-enactment of
Christ’s crucifixion. The reference is still more explicit,
although now this is not immediately clear on a first
viewing. In this vision, as Father Simó knelt at the
foot of the Cross, he received a gentle spray of blood,
directly from the wound in Christ’s side made by the
lance of Longinus, thereby increasing the priest’s
active role in the miracle.
Fig. 16 / Michel Lasne after
designs by Francisco Ribalta,
Scenes from the Life of Blessed
Father Simó, 1610, engraving,
Barcelona, Museo Nacional
d’Art de Catalunya.
Nothing is known of the original location of the
Valladolid painting, but the National Gallery painting
is probably the altarpiece that was commissioned by
the clergy for the church of San Andrés, Valencia,
upon the death of its parish priest. This was placed
in the chapel in which he was buried, above his tomb,
and was dedicated as early as 5 September 1612.
Ribalta also provided the group of drawings that
formed the basis of an engraving by the Frenchman,
Michel Lasne, of which only one example survives
(fig. 16). This engraving was first mentioned in Marcos
Antonio Orellana’s work on Valencian painters
written in 1782, where he notes he had seen some
of these images himself, but a surviving example was
only found and published in 1957.68 The engraving
itself is of high quality and shows Simó in the central
panel – this time surrounded by no less than seventeen
miraculous events that should have been the grounds
for his canonization.69 Seven of these cover Simó’s
childhood and seven his early and holy death, while the
middle three, including both of the episodes in the two
paintings discussed, describe his visions of the Passion
of Christ. In envisioning several of these scenes, Ribalta
has drawn again on the intimate knowledge he had
acquired of the work of Sebastiano del Piombo.
The compositions had to be somewhat altered in detail
in order to fit the format of the print; Simó’s vision
of Christ Carrying the Cross has now been changed
from a vertical to a horizontal format. Simó himself
interacts with the miracle to a far greater extent; he
now embraces the figure of Christ directly instead
of being placed to one side. Each scene is further
accompanied underneath by an explanatory text in
Latin. Such prints were a common form of devotional
tract in this period; in all cases the saint in question
forms the central figure, surrounded by miraculous
episodes of their life and accompanied by a stirring,
moralizing text. It is interesting specifically to note
the use of the halo here, even though Simó was not
Francisco Ribalta’s Vision of Father Simó: British taste and the legacy of Sebastiano del Piombo in Spanish painting
yet even beatified – indeed its use in his images was
specifically prohibited by the Inquisition as early as 24
June 1614.70 The central figure of Jeronimo Simó is
described as a viva imago and is remarkably close to the
two painted examples already examined.
Images of Simó became widespread rapidly in
contemporary print culture and as book illustrations.
A copy of an engraving of Simó was sent to no less
a figure than Peter Paul Rubens in Antwerp. Rubens
employed Cornelis Gallé to copy it as the frontispiece
for the Vita B Simonis Valentini by Jan van Wouwers,
which was printed in the city in 1614 and dedicated
to the Regent, Archduke Albert of Austria.71 The
appearance of Simó’s cult in Flanders and the
publication of Wouwers’s Vita can be traced back to
the support for his cause by Archduke Albert, Regent
of the Netherlands, both brother-in-law and cousin to
King Philip III of Spain and a firm believer in the cult
of saints and relics.72
The archduke believed that he had been cured of the
gout by a piece of silk thread from Simó’s clothing
that belonged to his wife, and presented Simó’s parish
church of San Andres with a valuable silver lamp that
was intended to burn in perpetuity before his tomb.73
Wouwer’s text meanwhile was only one of at least
three vitae of the Valencian priest that were published
in both southern and northern Europe during the
years immediately after his death.74 One appeared in
the very same year, 1612, and two more in 1614. All
were part of the same sustained push for canonization.
Archbishop Ribera had himself commissioned a similar
life for Sor Margarita Agullona, published in 1607 and
for which he himself wrote the prologue.75
Nonetheless in both cases the campaign failed and
on 3 March 1619 all images of Simó were banned
by the Inquisition.76 Furthermore, at Rome, within a
short time of his election in 1623, Urban VIII moved
to tighten up the regulations surrounding candidates
for canonization and their images, with decrees of
13 March and of 30 October 1625.77 The National
Gallery’s altarpiece by Ribalta was removed from
the church within ten years of its installation and is
now precious surviving evidence of this brief episode.
Its immediate removal is also indicative of the overall failure of Juan de Ribera’s wider campaign to
engage with the “religiosity of the laity” of which the
paintings of Luis de Morales were a more generic
feature.
*****
Taking these examples together demonstrates
that the cult of Jeronimo Simó forms an excellent
illustration of the dramatic confluence between
art, society and religion in the Hispanic Baroque
within the Iberian Peninsula. More specifically, they
also reveal, I hope, why Francisco Ribalta’s, Vision
of Father Jeronimo Simó deserves a more prominent
place in the National Gallery’s collection. Besides its
history, it represents a very unusual moment in the
British collecting of Spanish art. Above all, Ribalta’s,
Vision of Father Jeronimo Simó shows how profoundly
the art of Sebastiano del Piombo penetrated in
Spain. It was not just a case of a handful of copies
made directly. These are merely suggestive of a much
deeper and widespread impact, whereby Sebastiano
became the referent for depicting the sacred image in
many different forms in the Spain of Philip II. The
influence of Sebastiano presents a powerful case for
the reconsideration of the Spanish religious image
of the second half of the sixteenth century more
generally; but that is another story.
49

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