Saint Jerome (about 342–420 AD) was a theologian, writer and hermit, famous for producing what is considered to be the first Latin translation of the Bible, known as the Vulgate. The saint is depicted here with a number of identifying attributes: a crucifix refers to his religious contemplation during a four-year retreat in the desert, the skull to his meditation on the transience of life, the rock an instrument of self-flagellation to ward off sinful thoughts, and the crimson-red cloak an allusion to the widely-held belief that he was ordained as a cardinal.
This painting is likely the half-length Saint Jerome that Guido Reni’s biographer Carlo Cesare Malvasia recorded as being in the Palazzo Barberini in Rome. It has been shown that this picture was acquired by the Barberini family from Carlo Ganotto in 1634, and subsequently appears listed in Barberini inventories from 1644 to 1740.
Saint Jerome was a theologian, writer and hermit, famous for producing what is considered to be the first Latin translation of the Bible, known as the Vulgate. He spent four years living in the desert, and in many earlier representations, like that by Cosimo Tura, artists gave considerable attention to the details of the rocky landscape. Reni has set the saint in darkness with only minimal indication of the barren surroundings, including a large rock in the foreground and sparse trees loosely painted in the background.
The saint’s aged, sagging skin is rendered convincingly. He is shown with a number of identifying attributes – a crucifix, a skull and a rock. He stares intensely at the crucifix, a reference to his meditation on the suffering of Christ during his period of religious contemplation in the desert. The skull is another symbol related to his spiritual retreat – a reminder of the transience of life, and of Christ’s sacrifice. He uses the rock to beat his breast in order to absolve himself of sin through physical suffering, and to ward off the impure thoughts that plagued him. His crimson-red cloak is perhaps an allusion to cardinal’s robes – it was widely believed that Jerome was ordained as a cardinal, though the office did not exist until sometime after his death.
Saint Jerome was a popular figure in seventeenth-century painting, following the Council of Trent’s declaration of the Vulgate as the official translation of the Bible. Furthermore, because of the growing significance of the sacrament of Penance after the Council of Trent, penitent saints were frequently portrayed by artists as examples for viewers to follow. Reni himself began to paint half-length compositions with increased regularity from the mid-1620s, a great number of which depicted penitent saints, such as Saint Mary Magdalene. The artist and his studio produced several similar versions of Saint Jerome, including a later work now in the Musei Capitolini, Rome.
Previously obscured by a thick layer of discoloured varnish, this work was thought to be a copy until it was cleaned in the mid-1980s. The cleaning revealed brushwork consistent with Reni’s own hand, particularly in the beard, painted in broad, quick strokes with a stiff-bristled brush, and in the loose, chalky highlights of the saint’s forehead and muscular arms.
This painting is likely the half-length Saint Jerome that Carlo Cesare Malvasia, Reni’s biographer, recorded as being in the Palazzo Barberini in Rome. It has been shown that this picture was acquired by the Barberini family from Carlo Ganotto in 1634, and subsequently appears listed in Barberini inventories from 1644 to 1740.
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