The signature (bottom left) and date (1624) make this unusually well preserved painting an important point of reference for ongoing efforts to catalogue Jusepe de Ribera’s early works and arrange them convincingly in chronological order. The internal dialogue between Madonna and monk, mediated by a very animated Christ child, represents the first stylistic shift after his naturalistic phase in Rome, which persisted until 1616. The chromatic brightening is new, as is the multi-figure composition with cherubs charmingly arranged around the Virgin Mary. An X-ray image reveals that Ribera was at pains to improve the cherubs. Major revisions were made to the head in the middle of the trio above the Madonna as well as to the one lower down on the right. In this painting, the artist is not only demonstrating his ability to deliver a sophisticated rendering of a religious story, but is also recommending himself as a portraitist (St Bruno) and still-life painter (bishop’s crook, hat, and two books). His astonishing spectrum of textures extends from the sturdy materiality of the monk’s habit to the gauze veil around the shoulders of the Mother of God. The lengthy inscription indicates that Ribera himself held this painting in high regard. Here he mentions that he comes from Spain, from the viceroyalty of Valencia, and more specifically from the town of Xàtiva, and he also presents himself as a member of the prestigious Roman Academy. It has been pointed out that Ribera returned to the figure of St Bruno in a work dated six years later, the monumental "Earthly Trinity".
Opinions vary over the original provenance of the altarpiece. Gabriele Finaldi’s theory that it was created as the focal picture for the Chapter Room in St Martin’s Charterhouse in Naples was dismissed by Roberto Contini as an “intriguing hypothesis”. Viviana Farina wonders whether the advance payment that Ribera received in September 1621 to paint a picture for the newly erected church of the Trinità delle Monache monastery in Naples is related to the Berlin artwork. For Matthias Weniger, the painting serves as evidence that the zeal of Protestant princes for collecting art was not dampened by Counter-Reformation imagery. Indeed, for a while the painting belonged to the collection of King William II of the Netherlands (1792–1849).
The distinct Spanish quality of the painting lies in the intermingling of reality and vision, allowing things seen solely in the mind’s eye to appear vividly real. The picture was probably painted in reaction to the authorisation one year earlier (1623) of the cult of St Bruno, the founder of the Carthusian Order. The discarded bishop’s staff and mitre symbolise the saint’s rejection of the episcopate that had been offered to him. Instead, he reaches for the book, which the Christ child is expressly and urgently recommending, to help him engage all the more intensely in a dialogue with the Madonna. From the upper left of the painting, the apparition of the Madonna carried by clouds glides diagonally down the steps on which Bruno is kneeling. In this meeting of real and visionary zones, however, the lowest group of cherub heads seem to be in danger of being crushed, a reference perhaps to the still new painting techniques deployed in the depiction of the vision. The subject matter and form prove that Ribera should be situated within a Spanish context, although this is sometimes disputed. Monks that appear frozen in devotion against a dark background also feature prominently in the work of Francisco de Zurbarán, who was active in the south of Spain. The history of the Carthusian Order, on the other hand, was the subject of a well-known cycle of 56 paintings executed between 1626 and 1632 by the court painter Vicente Carducho for Santa María de El Paular (now restored to their original location).| Michael Scholz-Hänsel