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St. Peter released from prision

Ribera Jusepe de' called Spagnoletto

(Jàtiva 1591 - Naples 1652)

In the past, the canvas was attributed to the Ticino painter Pier Francesco Mola, but critics have recently attributed it to Jusepe de Ribera, known as Lo Spagnoletto, a Spanish artist and one of the best known artists of 17th-century Neapolitan painting. The canvas, painted around 1613-1614, represents the apostle Peter. Chained up in the darkness of a prison, he is visited by an angel who miraculously frees him from captivity. The story, from the Acts of the Apostles (12: 6), has been transposed here with incredible pathos and remarkable mastery by the famous painter who, through the skilful use of warm tones, has managed to make the portrayed subjects palpable. 


Object details

c. 1613-1614
oil on canvas
cm 193 x 143

19th century frame decorated with four corner palmettes, 222 x 165 x 10 cm.


Rome, Borghese Collection, 1693 (Inv. 1693, room I, no. 43); Inv. 1700, room I, no. 28; Inv. 1790, room I, no. 18; Inventario Fidecommissario, 1833, p. 36; purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

  • 1922 Firenze, Palazzo Pitti
  • 2011 Napoli, Museo di Capodimonte
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1914 Lorenzo Cecconi Principi, Luigi Bartolucci (rimozione vecchie vernici, stuccatura e verniciatura)
  • 1965 Renato Massi (restauro della cornice)
  • 1995-1996 ICR, Carla Zaccheo (pulitura, stuccatura delle lacune, verniciatura)


The painting is mentioned for the first time as part of the Borghese collection in 1693, attributed by the compiler of the inventory to “Monsù Valentin,” a name that was revised not long after (1700) in favour of Annibale Carracci. In 1787, Basilius von Ramdhor described the painting as a work by Pier Francesco Mola, an attribution that was accepted both by the inventory of 1790 and by the compiler of the fideicommissum listing of 1833, and endured until Giovanni Piancastelli (1891), who some years later, as we can read in the Note by Giulio Cantalamessa (1912), suggested the name of Jusepe de Ribera. Though he recognised Spagnoletto’s style in the “grandiose” and “sturdy” figure of St Peter, in 1893 Adolfo Venturi once again suggested attributing the work to Mola, a suggestion that was welcomed by all of his colleagues (Ozzola 1911; Arslan 1928; Longhi 1928) and by Paola della Pergola (1959), who referred the work to the Ticinese painter in her catalogue of the paintings of the Borghese Gallery.

The attribution to Pier Francesco Mola, already questioned by Richard Cocke (1972), was finally rejected by Gianni Papi, who in 2003 judged the painting to by stylistically similar to A Beggar, also part of the Borghese collection, and returned it to Ribera’s catalogue. He also noted that the figure of the angel could have inspired St Vincent Crowned by an Angel, painted for the Marquess Vincenzo Giustiniani by Timan Arentsz Craft (or Cracht), a German painter who was active in Rome between 1622 and 1629. This attribution, at first rejected by Nicola Spinosa (2006), but reiterated by Papi in 2005 and 2007, was finally accepted by the Neapolitan scholar (Spinosa 2008), who included the painting among Spagnoletto’s juvenile works, exhibiting it in 2011-12 in an important show of Ribera’s early production.  

As remarked by Papi (2011), who dated the work around 1613-14, this Liberation is a magnificent product of Ribera’s Roman phase and displays noteworthy similarities in the rendering of the garments and the drapery with the Borghese Beggar (inv. 325), the Smiling Geographer (Switzerland, private collection), the allegory of Smell (Madrid, Juan Abellò Collection), and with the figure on the left in Christ among the Doctors (Langres, Church of Saint-Martis, Ville de Langres Collection). The beautiful, wingless angel, lit by a pale light that enhances its earthly features, is clearly evocative of Caravaggio, its face buried in shadow reminiscent of that of the executioner in The Judgment of Salomon (inv. 033), as is the detail of the sandals in the foreground (see Papi 2011). Finally, bearing in mind the size of this canvas, more or less equivalent to an altarpiece, Papi speculated that it might have been commissioned or purchased by a member of the family for the Borghese Collection, possibly by Cardinal Scipione, who was known at the time for collecting “rejected” woks, such as those by Caravaggio or Cecco Boneri.           

Antonio Iommelli

  • F.W.B. von Ramdohr, Ueber Malherei und Bildhauerarbeit in Rom für Liebhaber des Schönen in der Kunst, Leipzig 1787, I, p. 277. 
  • E. e C. Platner, Beschreibung der Stadt Rom, III, Stuttgart 1842, p. 297. 
  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese, in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891, p. 120. 
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 118. 
  • L. Ozzola, Alcuni quadri di Pier Francesco Mola, in “Bollettino d’Arte”, V, 1911, V, p. 319. 
  • G. Cantalamessa, Note manoscritte al Catalogo di A. Venturi del 1893, Arch. Gall. Borghese, 1911-1912, n. 192. 
  • W. Arslan, Opere romane di Pier Francesco Mola, in “Bollettino d’Arte”, VIII, 1928, VIII, pp. 62-63. 
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 196. 
  • M. Nugent, Mostra della Pittura Italiana del ‘600 e ‘700, II, S. Casciano, Val di Pesa 1930, II, p. 186. 
  • A. De Rinaldis, Catalogo della Galleria Borghese, Roma 1948, p. 21. 
  • P. della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese in Roma, Roma 1951, p. 11. 
  • L. Ferrara, Galleria Borghese, Novara 1956, p. 154. 
  • P. della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, II, Roma 1959, pp. 106-107, n. 155. 
  • P. della Pergola, L’Inventario Borghese del 1693 (I), in “Arte Antica e Moderna”, XXVI, 1964, p. 222. 
  • R. Cocke, Pier Francesco Mola, Oxford 1972, p. 69. 
  • S. Rudolph, Pier Francesco Mola, la monografia di Richard Cocke e nuovi contributi, in “Arte illustrata”, V, 1972, p. 347. 
  • B. Riccio, Ancora sul Mola, in “Arte Illustrata”, V, 1972, p. 404. 
  • P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Galleria Borghese, Milano 2000, p. 317. 
  • G. Papi, Ancora su Ribera a Roma, in "Cahiers d’Histoire de l’Art", I, 2003, pp. 69-70.
  • G. Papi, Ribera a Roma: dopo Caravaggio, una seconda rivoluzione, in Caravaggio e l’Europa. Il movimento caravaggesco internazionale da Caravaggio a Mattia Preti, catalogo della mostra (Milano, Palazzo Reale, 2005), a cura di L. Spezzaferro, Milano 2005, pp. 47, 50.
  • K. Herrmann Fiore, Galleria Borghese Roma scopre un tesoro. Dalla pinacoteca ai depositi un museo che non ha più segreti, San Giuliano Milanese 2006, p. 66. 
  • N. Spinosa, Ribera. L’opera completa, Napoli 2006, p. 396.
  • G. Papi, Ribera a Roma, Soncino (CR) 2007, pp. 146-148.
  • N. Spinosa, Ribera. La obra completa, Madrid 2008, p. 321.
  • G. Papi, scheda in Il giovane Ribera tra Roma, Parma e Napoli (1608-1624), catalogo della mostra (Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado 2011. Napoli, Museo di Capodimonte 2011-2012), a cura di N. Spinosa, Napoli 2011, pp. 122-124, n. 14.
  • V. Farina, Al sole e all’ombra di Ribera. Questioni di pittura e disegno a Napoli nella prima metà del Seicento, Castellammare di Stabia (NA) 2014, p. 155, fig. 184.