Manfredi (1582–1622) mastered Caravaggio’s way of depicting faces in varying states of terror, confusion, and anger and could orchestrate multiple figures in scenes that have Caravaggio’s paused velocity of action. The best of these is Christ Expelling the Merchants from the Temple, which pulls our attention in different directions. Most of the commotion is deposited on the right, where the merchants are reacting with consternation to Christ’s anger. Their action draws us to its source: flailing a whip, Christ looks inflamed, a man to be feared. The marvelous moment, however, belongs to the serving woman whose back is turned to the action: balancing a workaday bundle on her head, she’s indifferent to the violence occurring right there behind her back. Manfredi was himself so influential that his way of painting, the Manfrediana Methodus, was applied to compositions inspired by his powerful example, especially the work of French painters such as Tournier (of the Denial picture) and Vouet, whose version of Saint Jerome at his writing desk being visited by the angel of death catches the saint with a hand raised in a gesture of both abandon and protest while the other hand is still writing.
This kind of big-tent show frees the curators to arrange smart match-ups — three “Denials” and two “Crown of Thorns” hang side by side in the same gallery — and to bring together masterpieces fairly remote from Caravaggio and his Rome. Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652), a painter of ripe, juicy agonies, was born in Valencia but lived his adult life mostly in Naples. His Saint Mary of Egypt (a reformed prostitute who lived in penitence as a desert hermit) concentrates the withering effects of old age into a look of severe expectation of deliverance. Velázquez, who learned much from Ribera’s practice, gives us a St. Thomas not in Christ’s presence demanding to see His wounds, but alone, carrying a book and staff, like a hermit: his hands are clenched with skepticism, his peasant face stunned by uncertainty. The grandest picture in the exhibition, for me, is of Saint Serapion, a little-known martyr of the Mercedarian Order, by Velázquez’s contemporary, Francisco de Zurbarán. It’s heart-stoppingly vivid. Serapion’s arms are strung up. His head drops to his right shoulder with the massive weight of his death, and with it droops his right hand. Zurbarán paints the completedness of death with his characteristic grave and dignified composure. The rucked, weighty folds of Serapion’s rough woolen habit — it looks as if it’s been boiled in faint yellow-green dyes — hang heavy on the corpse and seem full of the faith the saint died for. ■