Saint Jerome, a fourth-century Christian scholar and hermit, is seated in a nocturnal landscape, absorbed in the book that lies open on his lap. He is celebrated for producing what is considered to be the first Latin translation of the Bible, known as the Vulgate. He spent four years living as a hermit in the desert, accompanied only by a lion. It lies quietly at his feet in this painting, light catching the glint of its eyes and nose.
Saint Jerome was a popular subject in Italian painting and is often depicted as a penitent in the desert, half-naked and lost in study or contemplation. This composition focuses our attention on Jerome, whose pale body gleams in the dark landscape. He is surrounded by his traditional attributes: a rock, with which he beat his breast in penitence; a crucifix, the focus of his meditation on Christ’s suffering; and a skull, which acts as a reminder of human mortality.
Saint Jerome, a fourth-century Christian scholar and hermit, is seated in a nocturnal landscape, absorbed in the book that lies open on his lap. Jerome is celebrated for producing what is considered to be the first Latin translation of the Bible, known as the Vulgate. He spent four years living as a hermit in the desert accompanied only by a lion – according to popular tradition, he pulled a thorn from the animal’s paw and it became his devoted companion. It lies quietly at his feet in this painting, light catching the glint of its eyes and nose.
A number of Jerome’s conventional attributes appear alongside him: a crucifix with a skull placed at its base; books and scrolls of paper; and a small rock. The crucifix was the focus of Jerome’s meditations on the Passion, while the skull symbolises the transience of human life (and is another reference to Christ’s sacrifice). The books and scrolls are a nod to the influence of his writings, which underpinned much of the Catholic Church, and the rock to his practice of beating his breast in penitence. Depictions of penitent saints were believed to encourage devotion and faith in viewers, and in this painting Crespi has focused our attention on Jerome’s meditative pose and scholarly contemplation. His body is bathed in a cool silvery light that makes him stand out against the darkened landscape.
Saint Jerome was an extremely popular subject in Italian painting. He was sometimes shown in his study or wearing cardinal’s robes, as in Saint Jerome in his Study by Antonello da Messina, but was often painted as a penitent in the desert, half-naked and lost in contemplation, as in Saint Jerome reading in a Landscape by Giovanni Bellini. The saint’s popularity only grew following the Council of Trent’s declaration of the Vulgate as the official translation of the Bible. His image became a staple of grand picture galleries – Guido Reni’s closely cropped depiction, for example, probably hung in the Barberini Collection.
This picture probably dates to around 1715, shortly after Crespi’s return to his home town of Bologna from Florence. Employed by the Grand Prince Ferdinand de' Medici and Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, he painted religious subjects, portraits and still life, but was best known for his scenes of daily life, such as Peasants with Donkeys and Musicians.
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