An old man with a long white beard kneels in a rocky landscape. He gazes up at a rough wooden cross made from two slender branches roped together. This is Jerome, a fourth-century saint. It’s one of a number of versions of the subject made by Cima da Conegliano.
The painting is arranged to focus our attention on the white of the stone that Jerome holds, almost in the centre. When tempted by sinful thoughts, symbolised by the snake wriggling on the ground, the saint would beat his breast.
The shapes of the landscape are closely related to Saint Jerome’s own shape and movements. The composition is structured around a series of diagonal parallel lines running from top left to bottom right. A zigzagging road draws our eye into the valley, connecting the foreground with the landscape.
An old man with a long white beard kneels in a rocky landscape. This is Saint Jerome, one of the four doctors of the Church. After a dissolute youth, the saint converted to Christianity and spent time as a hermit in the Syrian desert. He later used his classical learning to produce the Latin Vulgate, the standard version of the Bible. He was inspiration both for Christian penitents and for humanist scholars; to scholars, he was a model for the study of classical texts and for the solitary life, away from the distractions of the city.
A large number of small-scale paintings of Saint Jerome were produced in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, combining his roles as hermit and scholar: Saint Jerome in a Landscape by Bono da Ferrara, Saint Jerome reading in a Landscape by Giovanni Bellini and Saint Jerome by Albrecht Dürer. In these, as in this painting, he is accompanied by the faithful lion from whose paw he had pulled a thorn. Here, however, the saint is not reading. He has flung himself to the ground in a penitential frenzy, gazing in awe at a fragile cross made from two slender branches roped together. His fingers are clenched around the stone which he used to beat his breast when tempted by sinful thoughts (here symbolised by the snake wriggling on the ground).
This is one of a series of versions of the subject painted by Cima da Conegliano, allowing us to see how his idea of the subject developed (others are in the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan; the National Gallery of Art, Washington; and the Uffizi, Florence). All seem to derive from a large and beautiful painting at Harewood House, Leeds, which was in turn Cima’s response to Giovanni Bellini’s large panel of about 1480, now in the Uffizi, Florence. In our painting, Cima has selected and rearranged elements of both the Harewood painting and Bellini’s versions: the hawk on the bare branch, the overhanging rock, the enclosing walls of the craggy hollow rendered claustrophobic by the small scale of the picture.
The saint’s dramatic pose is a reversed and exaggerated version of the Harewood figure, his body tipped forward to increase the painting’s emotional intensity. The composition is carefully arranged to focus our attention on the white of the stone Jerome holds, almost in the centre. The shapes of the landscape are closely related to Jerome’s own shape and movements, and the picture is structured around a series of diagonal parallel lines running from top left to bottom right. The slope of the rocky hill on the left is extended by the curving road and bridge, and by the foliage of the bush between the saint and the cross. The line of the saint’s right arm continues up through the slopes of the distant mountains and down along his leg. It is echoed by the leaning tree and stark bare branch, the line of which continues that of the saint’s left arm.
The fertile plain and sunlit city on the hill of Bellini’s paintings and Cima’s Harewood version have receded into the distance, leaving the saint alone in the wilderness, cut off by the wall of rock behind him. Figures pass unaware on the road behind him, emphasising his isolation from civilisation.
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