Saint Paul the Hermit
(Salvator Rosa)


Saint Paul the Hermit
Oil on canvas, 78 ¾ x 46 7/8 in.
(200 x 119 cm.)

Inscribed on the verso in block letters: Di Salvatore Rosa / N°
19; under the stretcher on the unlined edge of the canvas in a cursive
hand: Rosa

In what surely must be a position of uncompromising pain, Saint Paul the Hermit, dressed in a shirt of woven palms, stretches across a rock. His feet are bound to a tree and although his hands are tied at the wrists, he is still able to grasp a reed cross. At his side are the traditional books and skull associated with the ascetic meditation of hermits. Together with the crucifix which the saint holds it indicates that he is contemplating the life eternal and the transience of a mortal existence. Paul of Thebes is called the first hermit. To escape the persecution of Decius he took refuge in a boundless desert, where he is reputed to have lived to an age well over a hundred.

In his later career Rosa became increasingly unhappy with his reputation as a painter of ‘decorative’ landscapes. By the late 1650s, he began to produce upright compositions in which his expansive landscape settings were reduced to constricted backdrops for life-sized figures. Typical of these works is Saint Onophrius (The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, see fig. 1). Giovanni Battista Passeri, who thought that he could not render nudes, movement or drapery correctly, criticized such paintings in Rosa’s lifetime. While it is true that such idiosyncrasies were not noticeable in his smaller figures, pictures such as Saint Paul the Hermit show that Rosa was perfectly capable of painting on a larger scale.

His paintings of hermits express the idea that society and its material preoccupations were superfluous and implicitly corrupting. According to this view, the wise man was the ascetic who minimized his dependence on material objects. Such was the Greek philosopher, Diogenes, whom Rosa painted more often than once in the act of discovering that even a drinking bowl is a needless encumbrance. Diogenes the Cynic seems to have been something of a personal hero to Rosa, who like the stoic desired complete liberty from society. Saint Onophrius, who according to legend spent sixty years in the wilderness without seeing another human, and Saint Paul the Hermit also are clear exemplars of this aesthetic type.

The solitary saint on a monumental scale recalls Jusepe de Ribera’s Saint Paul the Hermit (Madrid, Museo del Prado – see fig. 2) painted in Naples around 1650. This psychologically penetrating image most certainly influenced Rosa, who was likewise was able to suggest the spiritual energy and agitation that lay beneath the saint’s outward appearance of immobile concentration. But unlike Ribera, Rosa accentuated the drama of the saint’s meditative penitence by depicting him bound to a tree.

The dimensions of Saint Paul the Hermit are nearly identical to those of the Saint Onophrius in Minneapolis and the two pictures of early hermits may well have been conceived as pendants. During the 1660s Rosa created the majority of his larger prints as pendants. For example, Saint William and Albert, Companion to Saint William were intended as a matched pair. These two prints also depict penitential saints bound to trees. William, dressed in armour, is suspended by his wrists. Apparently in great discomfort, he strains to raise his head in order to contemplate the cross in the upper branches of the tree. Although in the companion print Albert’s upright pose is clearly based on antique statues of Marsyas, a disquieting tension is established as he leans toward the left in an attempt to view the cross as his feet. The same type of anguished tension is apparent in Saint Paul the Hermit, where the saint’s body only precariously rests on the rock sloping towards the left as he struggles to maintain his concentration on the cross.

Oil on canvas

Private collection, Belgium

Where is It?
Historical Period
Baroque - 1600-1720
Religious: New Testament
Italian - Neapolitan
2001-2001: An Art Odyssey (1500-1720)
Hardbound millennium catalogue with special binding with 58 colour plates and 184 black and white illustrations, 360 pages. £35 or $50 plus p.& p.

(Click on image above)
Price band
$500,000 - $750,000