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The careful modelling of the faces, particularly that of the woman at far left and the hooded man far right, suggest that they are based on real models standing before the artist. The highlight of the work, however, must be the enchanting Salomé, surely painted directly from life; she is portrayed with such beauty that it might be proposed that she may have been based on the lover of the patron who commissioned the painting.
The naturalism which was to radically inform Ribera's later work is already present in such details as the scar which marks the back of the swordsman's left arm, the carefully observed tautness which defines his back muscles, and perhaps, even more importantly, in the already developed use of shadow to create depth, suspense and uncertainty. The carefully arranged design is surprisingly mature for such a young artist and attests to Ribera's genius. The three figures to the left are very precisely arranged in a diagonal which leads towards the viewer, drawn in by the knowing look of the woman at left, and ends with the raw physicality of the executioner. A contrasting diagonal leads from the shadowy figure far right, through the executioner, and ending with the Baptist's head, pushed forward into the pictorial space towards us.
What is so unusual and satisfying about this very early phase of Ribera's career, and which contrasts so markedly with the realism which otherwise frames the present painting, is the more decorative aspects of the work, which the artist was, perhaps regretfully, to abandon in his later style, and which can be explained only by his presence in Parma, where he would have seen the work of artists such as Parmigianino. The piercing red sash, with its delightful red bows, dominate the center of the composition and introduce a delicacy which is not often found in his subsequent paintings. Similarly, Salomé's striking face and her headgear do not recur in the artist's later work, as so many of his models did, nor does the smoothness of her skin or her almost courtly air.
It is these decorative elements which cast doubt on Ferdinando Bologna's proposed dating of 1616 for the present picture (see Literature), when Ribera had just arrived in Naples, and had begun to study the work of Battistello Caracciolo. By this stage his naturalism had already progressed, and his work in Rome, which showed such a personal interpretation of Caravaggio's idiom and which was previously grouped under the moniker of the Master of the Judgement of Solomon, would not allow for such flashes of elegant refinement.
After seeing the painting in person, Professor Spinosa has dispelled any possible doubts about the attribution and has confirmed that it is an early work by Ribera, datable to circa 1611. Keith Christiansen has also seen the painting in person and independently endorses the attribution to the young Ribera.
1. The painting of the same subject, today in the Galleria Nazionale in Parma, has at different times been considered the lost original or an old copy. Unfortunately, its parlous condition makes it difficult to come to a definitive judgement. See Spinosa 2008, p. 497, cat. no. C3, under Literature, for further details.
2. "...è per la stessa strada che Caravaggio, ma più tento e fiero," Giulio Mancini, Considerazioni sulla pittura.
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