Once mistaken for a portrait of a cardinal, this painting in fact shows Saint Jerome dressed in cardinal’s robes. He was often painted this way as recognition of his high status in the Catholic Church, even though the office did not exist during his lifetime. His major achievement was to translate the Bible into Latin. Here he points to this great work, staring into the distance, his thumb marking his place.
El Greco and his studio painted several versions of this image. This version, which is on a smaller scale than the others and now quite worn, is of inferior quality and may have been made as a reduced copy to show to prospective patrons.
There was once an inscription – ‘L. Cornaro’ – on the open book in this painting, leading to speculation that it might be a portrait of Cardinal Luigi Cornaro, by Titian. But cleaning revealed that the inscription was not original and had been added later in the picture’s history.
Although it looks like a portrait of a cardinal, because of the man’s red robes, it is actually a painting of the fourth-century saint, Jerome. He was often depicted in this way as recognition of his high status in the Catholic Church, even though the office did not exist during his lifetime. He was a scholar whose major achievement was to translate the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into Latin (known as the Vulgate). This was the version used by the Catholic Church for centuries.
The saint is shown here with his work. He appears to be contemplating the passage he has just read as he gazes – not at us but, distracted, somewhere beyond us – into the middle distance, his thumb marking his place. The religious order of monks dedicated to Saint Jerome, the Hieronymites, was founded in Toledo, where El Greco lived from 1577 until his death in 1614.
The Hieronymite monasteries in Toledo were famous for their libraries and so it makes sense that El Greco’s image focuses on Jerome’s scholarship. At a time when the Protestant reform movement in northern Europe was translating the Bible into the vernacular – languages spoken by the contemporary congregation – the Catholic Church was eager to reinforce the ancient and divine origins of its preferred Latin version. El Greco’s picture might be an attempt to reinforce this idea through a painted image.
El Greco and his studio painted at least four versions of this image, the best of which are those in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and a later version in the Frick Collection, New York, in which the saint is shown life-size. Our painting, which is on a smaller scale and now quite worn, is of inferior quality to the others and may have been made as a reduced copy to show to prospective clients. It is possibly one of the ‘reducciones’ (small-scale replicas of El Greco’s paintings) seen in the artist’s studio in 1611 by Francisco Pacheco, who described them as ‘the originals of every work he had painted in life, painted in oils on smaller canvases’. An inventory of three years later describes the contents of El Greco’s studio at the time of his death and mentions a painting of Saint Jerome of almost identical dimensions to ours.
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