Blog / The Mystery of the Leopard

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By Wendy Hower Livingston

What is the meaning of the leopard in Francisco Ribalta’s painting, “Saint Francis Embracing the Crucified Christ”?

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The huge animal, wearing a golden crown, lies completely subdued, its cheek pressed under the bare foot of Saint Francis, who embraces a suffering Christ on the cross. You can make out more crowned heads of leopards and other beasts bobbing in the lower background.

The symbolism of the leopard had long been a mystery to historians, according to professor Theodore Rabb, the noted Renaissance scholar.

“It stumped all of us, anyone who’d ever looked at it,” said Rabb, who is professor emeritus of history at Princeton University.

I enjoyed hearing Professor Rabb’s anecdote in person earlier this week. Professor Rabb is a distinguished gentleman with a lovely English accent and a wicked sense of humor. He has graciously agreed to appear in the forthcoming UNC-TV documentary, “El Greco to Velázquez: Art during the Reign of Philip III.” We filmed him at a studio provided by NJN-TV in downtown Trenton, NJ.

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The case was cracked by a visitor to the exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Rabb said. The visitor emailed a Boston museum staffer with the suggestion that the leopard is a reference from Revelations 13:2 in the Bible.

Rabb talked the new theory over with Jonathan Brown, the world’s foremost authority on Spanish art. “Jonathan said, ‘He nailed it,’ ” Rabb said, with a laugh. Brown, who is the Carroll and Milton Petrie Professor of Fine Arts at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU, will visit the Nasher Museum on Oct. 18 for the Annual Semans Lecture, when he will join Sarah Schroth, curator of El Greco to Velázquez, in conversation.

“That is the wonderful thing about exhibitions like this,” Rabb told me. “Ordinary people encounter this art and can help us understand it, not just the scholars and the art historians.”

Image credits
TOP: Francisco Ribalta, “Saint Francis Embracing the Crucified Christ,” about 1620. Oil on canvas, 91 5/16 x 67 5/16 inches. Museo de Bellas Artes de Valencia.

BOTTOM: Theodore Rabb is interviewed by Scott Davis, executive producer with UNC-TV (left, in shadow), at a studio provided by NJN-TV in Trenton, NJ.

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