An elderly man kneels in landscape, beating his sunken and bleeding chest with a stone. He gazes up at a Crucifix attached to a tree, on which hangs a painted figure of Christ. This is Saint Jerome, hermit and translator of the Bible. His cardinal’s robes and hat lie discarded behind him.
The rocky and wooded landscape is presumably the wilderness to which he fled and where he beat his chest when tempted by sinful thoughts. According to legend, while there he pulled a thorn out of a lion’s paw. It remained his faithful companion until his death – here it lies beside him like a pet dog. The tower behind could be Bethlehem, where Jerome settled in the year 386.
This subject was very popular in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Jerome was seen as a role model for living an ascetic life – he renounced worldly riches and pleasure – and for the scholarly study of the Bible.
The subject of the penitent Jerome was popular in the Low Countries. One of the so-called Doctors of the Church, Saint Jerome was seen as a role model for living an ascetic life – he renounced worldly riches and pleasure – and for the scholarly study of the Bible. Widely travelled and well educated, Jerome was deeply affected by a dream in which God accused him of loving classical literature more than scripture. He went to live in the desert of Chalcis in Syria, gave up the classics he knew and loved, and learnt Hebrew to study the Bible in its original language. He later went to Rome and became secretary to the pope, so is often shown with the red robes and hat of a cardinal, as in Crivelli’s Saint Jerome, although the office did not exist in his lifetime. He started work on what was to become the standard Latin text of the Bible.
The condition of this painting makes it impossible to judge its quality accurately. It is clearly in the style of Gerard David, but due to the popularity of the subject a number of versions were made by David’s followers. It may be compared with Canon Bernardijn Salviati and Three Saints – the cross shown at an angle is similar to one in the panel of this diptych that is now in Berlin – and is probably a version of a pattern by David painted in his workshop at about the same time as Salviati’s picture, in around 1501.
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