In this 1635 oil painting, Spanish Baroque painter Jusepe de Ribera introduces us to an imaginary snapshot of a life shaped by wisdom and hardship, that of an ancient Greek philosopher. The subject could be Pythagoras, but he is more likely Euclid, who wrote his famous treatise on “Elements.”

What do we see? Who are we meeting?

Euclid emerges from the shadows. His forehead is crumbled. His eyes marked with wrinkles, signs of a life lived in intensity. He seems worried, but the lips beneath the unkempt beard purse upward into an exhausted but proud faint smile. His hands hold open a notebook for us to see, a manuscript of sorts. Perhaps he has handwritten it, or perhaps it came fresh off the printing press, which would account for his dirty fingernails. Perhaps, however, as the tattered clothes indicate, he is a learned beggar. In this work of art, dirtiness symbolizes devotion to intellectual pursuits. A man of true science, De Ribera tells us, isn’t a polished intellectual noble.

“Euclid” by Jusepe De Ribera, 1630-1635, oil on canvas (49 1/4 × 36 3/8 in.), J. Paul Getty Museum

“Come closer,” the philosopher beckons us, “see what I have come up with.”

We obey his feeble demand and discover geometric figures in the manuscript. We notice the circle – a sign of eternity – and the triangle within, which calls upon the Holy Trinity. During an era when science and religion are friendly with one another and not at odds, it is the perfection of science that made God visible to believers, even in the absence of obvious religious iconography. Curiously, while the geometric figures and the Pseudo-Greek characters have been rendered with dainty care, loads of black paint are thickly splattered onto the canvas, obscuring the background into black. We can scarcely make out the outline of his full figure, but it is there, its appearance aided only by the harsh, almost directly overhead light that spills upon the philosopher’s forehead, books, and bare upper chest, as though God illuminates his mind and his heart.

The stark contrast of light is a very pronounced feature of tenebrism, and it makes sense for de Ribera to have employed such a technique as he was a follower of Caravaggio. And like his predecessor, he probably, too, worked from a model seated before him, which gives the portrait startling directness. I am moved by this man’s devotion to the sciences, as I am equally moved by De Ribera’s tribute.

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