Colnaghi Foundation Journal 02 - Page 34

Francisco Ribalta’s Vision of Father Simó:
British taste and the legacy of Sebastiano
del Piombo in Spanish painting
Francisco Ribalta’s Vision of Father Jeronimo Simó (fig. 1)
has been among the more neglected paintings in the
National Gallery. It is one of the only two of Ribalta’s
works that are still in a UK collection – and of which
there have only ever been three.1 The subject, Jeronimo
Simó, a parish priest from Valencia, within his lifetime
was already a venerated ascetic and mystic and had
become well known for his visions. Perhaps the most
remarkable was of Christ Carrying his Cross which
came to Father Simó on one of the walks he took each
Friday along the Calle de los Caballeros, a street through
which condemned criminals were led to their execution.
He heard a sound of trumpets and saw Jesus bearing
his cross approaching him accompanied by a crowd.
Falling into a swoon, he was found insensible in the street
the next morning and never again rose from his bed,
enduring the same sufferings as Christ. He was just thirtythree years old, the same age as Christ at his death.2
Fig. 1 / Francisco Ribalta,
Vision of Father Simó, 1612, oil
on canvas, 210.8 x 110.5 cm,
London, National Gallery.
Ribalta’s painting of this vision is dominated by the
figure of Christ advancing towards us, bearing his
Cross. To Christ’s right is a kneeling figure, Father
Simó, in priestly garb and in a pose common in donor
portraits, reaches out, as if to embrace his Saviour. To
the left, a procession, led by a trumpeter and including
Saint John and the Virgin, follows Christ down the
narrow street. All these other figures are subordinated
to the central event, and Christ’s gaze is fixed firmly
on the kneeling priest. The painting is signed on the
scroll in the foreground: “Franciscus Ribalta Fecit Anno
1612.” The position of this signature draws the viewer
into the sacred drama as if he or she were receiving the
vision for him- or herself.
This commission must have been executed by
Ribalta rapidly after the event. Father Simó had only
died – in the odour of sanctity, to use the evocative
Catholic phrase – on the 25th of April of that same
year. So great were the crowds at the funeral sermon
on the 27th of that month, in his own parish church
of San Andrés, that neither the viceroy nor the city
councillors could reach their assigned seats.3 The news
immediately reached the court at Madrid where Simó’s
sanctity and a number of miracles already attributed to
him became topics for discussion; competition began
for relics too.4 News had also made it to Rome very
quickly, but it was not until just over a year later, on
7 September 1613, that an official process for Simó’s
beatification was begun there.5
The intended destination of Francisco Ribalta’s
painting of the Vision of Father Jeronimo Simó, and
its immediately subsequent fate, remain matters
of speculation. The painting first came to public
attention when the English writer and traveller
Richard Ford purchased it from a private collection
in Valencia in September 1831. At that point, Father
Simó had been painted over and the whole surface
covered with a heavy layer of varnish (fig. 2). The
painting had also been at some point cut down
considerably at both the sides and the top – losing
various additional figures including Mary Magdalene
in the process. The French critic, Marcel Nicolle, on
seeing the painting in the National Loan exhibition
of 1910 in London, dismissed it as: “pastiche amolli et
enfumé du célèbre Sebastiano del Piombo del Prado, signé et daté
de 1612.” 6


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