An elderly but muscular man with an impressive beard sits in a rocky landscape. Beside him is a pile of books, on top of which sits a skull wearing a cardinal’s hat. He leans on a second pile, and points to the text of an open volume resting on a rocky ledge. This is the fourth-century scholar and hermit Saint Jerome, who produced the standard Latin translation of the Bible known as the Vulgate.
Jerome was especially important during the Counter-Reformation, when the Catholic Church undertook a series of reforms in response to the Protestant Reformation. In 1546 the Council of Trent, a meeting of the Church’s ruling body, declared the Vulgate the official translation of the Bible. The angel flying down from the top left corner does not relate to a specific incident but shows that Jerome was divinely inspired.
This is the earliest surviving documented picture by Domenichino: it was recorded in the collection of Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini in 1603.
An elderly but muscular man with an impressive beard sits in a rocky landscape. Beside him is a pile of books, on top of which sits a skull wearing a cardinal’s hat. He leans on a second pile, and points to the text of an open volume resting on a rocky ledge.
This is the fourth-century scholar and hermit, Saint Jerome. One of the so-called Doctors of the Church, Jerome produced the standard Latin translation of the Bible, known as the Vulgate. After a misspent but highly educated youth, he converted to Christianity and went to live an ascetic life in the desert of Chalcis in Syria. He later went to Rome and became secretary to the pope, which is why he is often shown wearing red robes and a cardinal’s hat even though the office did not exist in his lifetime.
Jerome was often shown in the wilderness – as for example in Bellini’s Saint Jerome reading in a Landscape – surrounded by the tools of a scholar, and accompanied by a tame lion (here with peculiarly human eyes). According to legend, he earned its trust by removing a thorn from its paw. The skull on the pile of books is a vanitas, a reminder of death; the cross leaning at the right is the focus of his prayers when distracted by sinful thoughts.
Always a popular saint, Jerome became even more important during the Counter-Reformation. In 1546, in response to Protestant programmes to translate the Bible into the vernacular, the Council of Trent declared the Vulgate the official translation. The angel who flies down from the top left corner, pointing both up at heaven and down towards the saint and his works, does not relate to a specific incident but shows that Jerome’s translation was divinely inspired.
This is the earliest surviving documented picture by Domenichino. He painted several versions of the subject, but this one is recorded in the collection of Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini in 1603. Aldobrandini was one of the greatest patrons in early seventeenth-century Rome: he also commissioned Annibale Carracci’s Christ appearing to Saint Peter on the Appian Way (Domine, Quo Vadis?) and the Villa Aldobrandini frescoes. In 1592 Aldobrandini’s uncle, Pope Clement VIII, had issued the definitive edition of the Vulgate, known as the Clementine, so the subject of Saint Jerome probably had a particular significance for him.
Domenichino went to Rome in 1602, following his master Annibale Carracci, and was heavily influenced by Annibale’s early Roman style. This painting is closely comparable with Annibale’s Christ appearing to Saint Anthony Abbot during his Temptation, while the specific detail of the lion with its head on its paws appears in a 1602 engraving by Agostino Carracci.
Technical investigation has revealed that there was originally a standing figure behind the saint, perhaps from an earlier version of the picture which showed Jerome being tempted by demons, as in Domenichino’s fresco of the Temptation of Saint Jerome in San Onofrio al Gianicolo, Rome, painted a year or two later.
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