San Girolamo penitente (1546)

Lotto, Lorenzo (1480-1557)

San Girolamo penitente (Penitent Saint Jerome)
Oil on canvas, 99 x 90 cm
Museo del PradoMadrid

Lorenzo Lotto‘s various depictions of the penitent Saint Jerome span early versions influenced by Albrecht Dürer and Giovanni Bellini (Musée du Louvre, Paris, 1506) and by young Raphael (Museo Nazionale di Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome, c.1509), to his most personal interpretations from the 1540s. Lotto‘s Libro dei Conti (Book of Accounts) lists four paintings between 1544 and 1546 with this subject; three of which have survived and are now at the Muzeu de Arta, Bucharest, the Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome, and the Museo del Prado, respectively.

Bernard Aikema identifies the latter work as the one begun on 24 July 1546 for Vincenzo Frizieri, for which Lotto received eight ducats. Along with Giovanni Maria Giuta, Lotto and Frizieri were governors of the Ospedale dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo, one of the four major centres of assistance founded by the Venetian government in 1527, which Lotto named as a beneficiary in his will on 25 March 1546. Frizieri commissioned this painting for the hospital chapel, and its pictorial austerity and emphasis on penitence and self-mortification perfectly reflect that institution`s religious ideals as one of the Catholic Reformation`s most dynamic centres in Venice.

The story of the penitent Saint Jerome derives from a letter he wrote to Eustache in 384 AD and became important in the fifteenth century, when it was used by spiritual movements that aspired to a close union with Christ through prayer. Jean Gerson (1363-1429), to whom the spiritual manual De Imitatione Christ (1418-27) is attributed, shared these concerns, and Lotto owned a copy of his book. The spiritual guidelines laid down therein were furthered by the Company of Divine Love (a movement which, with Jerome as its patron saint, cared for the incurably ill and worked closely with the Ospedale dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo) and the Barnabite Brothers of Saint Paul, for whom the contemplation of Christ’s Passion constituted the best antidote to carnal desires. They, too, collaborated with the hospital.

That setting explains the iconography of Saint Jerome in Penitence, c.1546, which is exceptional in that it does not show the saint striking his chest with a stone while contemplating the crucifix. Eschewing that customary depiction, Lotto shows him with arms extended, spiritually and physically imitating Christ on the cross. That supreme state of communion with Christ is alluded to in the text shown by the angel: NUNC LEGIT NUNC ORAT NUNC PECTORE CRIMINA PLORAT (Now he reads, now he prays, now he cries on his bosom for the sins committed).

In 1575 the Ospedale dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo was rebuilt and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. That may be when Saint Jerome in Penitence was sold; the work has been identified as the one that Venetian ambassador Hieronimo Lippomano gave to King Philip II in 1587. At that time, the painting was attributed to Titian, but when it entered El Escorial on 8 June 1593 it was again attributed to Lotto. Because mortification and prayer were central subjects of The Life of Saint Jerome, Doctor of the Holy Church (1595) by José de Sigüenza, an author closely linked to El Escorial, this location for the painting was very apt. The Museo del Prado received this work in 1819. A simplified version exists at the Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome (Falomir, M. en: Italian Masterpieces. From Spain’s Royal Court, Museo del Prado, 2014, p. 90). (MNP)