Francesco Botticini, Saint Jerome in Penitence with Saints and Donors
S. Gerolamo Altarpiece
The S. Gerolamo Altarpiece, named after the saint prominently depicted at its centre and the church where it originally stood, is among the most important works of the Florentine painter Francesco Botticini. The artist was an exact contemporary of Sandro Botticelli, with whom he may have trained in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio.
The fourth-century theologian Saint Jerome (Gerolamo or Girolamo in Italian) is best known for his translation of the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek into Latin. During the fifteenth century a cult dedicated to the saint found many followers (called Hieronymites), leading to the establishment of numerous religious houses across the Italian peninsula. This altarpiece comes from their church in Fiesole, a small town in the hills above Florence. Its patron, the Florentine patrician Girolamo di Piero di Cardinale Rucellai, can be seen kneeling to the left of the framed image of Saint Jerome, opposite his son.
The S. Gerolamo Altarpiece is an important work of the Florentine painter Francesco Botticini, an exact contemporary of Sandro Botticelli. It is thought that Botticini trained in the workshops of some of the leading artists in Renaissance Florence, including that of Andrea del Verrocchio, before establishing himself as a sought-after supplier of devotional paintings and altarpieces. The altarpiece – which was acquired by Sir Charles Eastlake, first Director of the National Gallery, during his first visit to Italy in 1855 – was among the very first early Italian paintings to arrive at the National Gallery. It once stood on an altar in the church of S. Gerolamo in Fiesole, hence its name.
Saint Jerome (Gerolamo or Girolamo in Italian) is prominently depicted in the separately framed image at the centre of the altarpiece. A celebrated fourth-century theologian, Jerome is best known for his translation of the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek into Latin. During the fifteenth century a cult dedicated to the saint found many followers, leading to the establishment of numerous religious houses across the Italian Peninsula. The church of S. Gerolamo in Fiesole was the regional centre of these so-called Hieronymites, and was under the patronage of the Medici, who also owned an important villa nearby.
The two figures kneeling on either side of the image of Saint Jerome are not members of the Medici family, however. On the left is the Florentine patrician Girolamo di Piero di Cardinale Rucellai, whose circular marble tomb, not unlike the one depicted in front of him here, can still be seen in the church. His young son kneels opposite. Their coats of arms appear on either end of the predella panel below, as well as on a sacrament tabernacle from the same church (now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London). It is not coincidental that Girolamo was devoted to the saint with whom he shared his name. He may even have chosen the church out of reverence for his name saint, whose life as a hermit and profound learning seems to have inspired him.
Thanks to the inscriptions at the base of the framed image of Saint Jerome, we can identify the four saints surrounding him: Saints Damasus and Eusebius appear on the left, with Saints Paula and Eustochium on the right. All four were contemporaries of Saint Jerome and corresponded with him. The angels hovering above them in the sky play musical instruments, the sound of which the worshipper is encouraged to imagine.
The predella shows four scenes from Jerome’s life: the saint removing a thorn from a lion’s paw; his vision while ill; his death; and his appearance with Saint John the Baptist to Saint Augustine.