Hebrew, Greek or nonsense?

Saint Peter and Saint Paul, circa 1616, by Jusepe de Ribera, on display in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Strasbourg, France.

Two recent posts featured paintings which included Hebrew texts from the book of Isaiah. In an earlier post on Raphael, Stephanie commented that “before the birth of the Renaissance, many works that featured biblical themes had illegible scrawl substituted for Hebrew.” The above painting by Jusepe de Ribera is a good example of this. A few letters on the parchment and on the spine of the book under the arm of Saint Paul (the person on the right) look like Hebrew script, a few look like Greek, and the rest is just “illegible scrawl”. By this time other artists were beginning to include authentic Hebrew script in their religious works. Ribera, however, may have been constrained by social mores and the anti-Semitic attitudes of the Catholic church, or he may not have had the same social contacts as other artists to know how to write the correct script.

Ribera’s style was influenced by Caravaggio, and consequently paid a great deal of attention to detail, visible even in the naturalism of Saint Paul’s filthy finger nails. The painting includes some interesting details, such as the key on the table (according to Matthew 16:19, Jesus gave Peter “the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”) The painting depicts Peter and Paul in a belligerent manner, strangely with the younger Paul holding a sword. Two possible reasons why Ribera depicted Paul holding a sword come to mind. First, this could be an allusion to Paul’s own reference to “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17), or second, to his early life when he persecuted the church (Acts 8:3; 9:1).

On another interesting note, Ribera apparently reused another canvas to paint over for this work as an upside-down head of a child from the earlier work can still be seen below the parchment in Saint Peter’s hand.

Thanks to Stephanie for her art history expertise in writing this post!

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