Saint Jerome kneels against a rocky ledge in the wilderness contemplating the crucified Christ. Savoldo was particularly admired for his depictions of dawn and dusk and the dramatic lighting effects they produced. The painting is signed on the rock below the open book: ‘Giovanni Girolamo of Brescia, of the Savoldo family, made this.’
Saint Jerome spent four years living as a hermit in the desert, where he beat his chest when tempted by sinful thoughts. Here, his arm appears to swing out of the painting towards us as he prepares to beat himself in penitence. His other hand seems to grasp the air in anticipation of the blow, his arm boldly foreshortened.
The large church in the distance might be SS. Giovanni e Paolo in Venice, near where Savoldo was living in 1532. This may be the painting of Saint Jerome that Giovan Paolo Averoldi of Brescia commissioned Savoldo to paint in Venice in 1527.
Paintings of Saint Jerome were probably more common than those of any other saint in homes in Venice in the early sixteenth century. This painting is unusual in relation to earlier examples in that it is painted on canvas rather than panel and it is unusually large – of a size that would suit the side wall of a chapel, or a grand home.
Saint Jerome kneels against a rocky ledge in the wilderness contemplating the crucified Christ. The glowing horizon below the ultramarine sky and the dark city in the distance suggests it is dawn or dusk. Savoldo was particularly admired for his depictions of these times of day and the dramatic lighting effects they produced. An open book, perhaps Jerome’s Bible, is propped below the Crucifix while another volume rests beneath his knees. The painting is signed on the rock below the open book: ‘Giovanni Girolamo of Brescia, of the Savoldo family, made this.’
Saint Jerome’s arm with the rock in his hand appears to swing out of the painting towards us. His pose is dynamic, his body muscular and monumental as he prepares to beat the stone against his chest in penitence. His other hand seems to grasp the air in anticipation of the pain, his arm boldly foreshortened. His unkempt beard and strands of tangled hair stand out against the sky, while in the distance a large church towers over a city. It may be SS. Giovanni e Paolo in Venice, near where Savoldo was living in 1532. The waters of the distant lagoon, painted with the blue pigment azurite, have probably darkened.
The foreshortening of Jerome’s hand and his bearded head are similar to details in Savoldo’s Pesaro Altarpiece (Brera, Milan) of about 1525, as is the landscape with its coastline fringed with buildings and boats. The half-open apprehensive gesture of Jerome’s left hand and his furrowed brow are also found in other paintings by Savoldo of the later 1520s.
On 28 November 1527 Giovan Paolo Averoldi of Brescia recorded a payment in his personal account book of a ’scudo doro‘ (a gold scudo) to Savoldo ’towards the cost of making a Saint Jerome.‘ The payment was made in Venice at the artist’s house and was witnessed by his household. The commission may have been for the National Gallery’s picture, which seems bolder and more monumental than those Savoldo painted in the early 1520s. Savoldo’s second name was Jerome, or ’Girolamo' in Italian, and it is likely he also painted himself as Saint Jerome, and that there is another painting of this subject.
It was recorded in 1648 that the wife of the French Ambassador in Venice had a Saint Jerome praying in the desert as well as a Mary Magdalene by Savoldo. These may have been the National Gallery’s Saint Jerome and Mary Magdalene. There is a preparatory drawing in black chalk on faded blue paper in the Louvre of the head of Saint Jerome, which is very close to the National Gallery’s painted version.
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