An elderly man, barefoot and with an impressive grey beard, is perched on a rock, engrossed in a book. This is Saint Jerome, translator of the Bible into Latin. His only companion is an endearing lion which lies peaceably in the corner – he had tamed it by removing a thorn from its paw.
Bellini painted this subject several times, always using landscape and dramatic lighting to convey meaning. Cliffs tower around Jerome, cutting him off from civilisation (represented by the walled city in the background). A bright light falls on the saint and on the distant towers, but the landscape between them is plunged in shadow.
Recent technical study has confirmed that the painting is by Bellini himself, rather than a follower. Jerome’s head is painted with great attention to detail, and if you look closely you can see the individual brushstrokes in his hair and beard.
Saint Jerome was a favourite of the religious orders as a role model for living an ascetic life – he renounced worldly riches and pleasure – and also of humanist scholars for his study of the Bible. He was widely depicted in northern Italian art, from Pisanello on. Sometimes he kneels in penitence for his sins, as in Cima da Conegliano’s Saint Jerome in a Landscape; sometimes he is in the act of translation, as in Antonello’s Saint Jerome in his Study.
Giovanni Bellini painted this subject several times during his career. He was catering for the Venetian art market, and devotional panels which shared some of the qualities of early Netherlandish paintings were especially valued; Bellini developed a genre of religious paintings which took their meaning from the use of landscape and light. In all his images of Saint Jerome, the setting seems as much the subject as the saint. Cliffs tower around him and exemplify his isolation in the wilderness, cut off by rocks and water from civilisation, represented by the walled city behind.
The figure of the saint and parts of the rocky outcrop appear in a much larger painting, probably a small altarpiece (Uffizi, Florence). As they are very different in scale, the design can't have been transferred mechanically from one to the other. Infrared reflectography has shown that Bellini made his usual highly detailed underdrawings. The only pentimento in this carefully planned painting is the lion tucked into the lower right corner over the complete rocks; it adds a lively, humorous touch. It was not drawn from life, but is probably derived from many such beasts in the notebooks of his father, Jacopo Bellini.
The composition is carefully and geometrically structured. The saint’s body, from his bent and brightly lit right arm to his feet, forms a curve around the book balanced on his knee, cutting him off from the landscape and emphasising his absorption in the text. The diagonal line of his upper arm and shoulder are echoed by the rocky outcrop behind him, which itself pushes the city further into the distance. The line of his right arm is continued by the city walls and the top of the cliff, and other diagonals are formed by the book and the fissures in the cliff face. The movement from lower left to upper right is brought to an abrupt halt by the barren tree which juts out in the opposite direction, echoing the line of the saint’s left leg. A bright light, shining from the left, falls on Saint Jerome, his book and the foreground cliffs, and on the towers of the distant city; the landscape between them is plunged in shadow.
Recent technical study has confirmed that the painting is by Bellini. Saint Jerome’s head is depicted with great attention to detail, the paint applied quickly and loosely using a fine-pointed brush: look closely and you can see the brushstrokes in Jerome’s hair and beard. The illusionistic detail of the distant roofs and towers, which have also been rapidly painted, can be seen in Bellini’s other works, such as The Agony in the Garden.
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