In this half-length composition, El Greco depicts the penitent Saint Jerome. The figure is shown in a three-quarter view as he contemplates the crucifix which he holds in his left hand. At the same time, he presses a stone to his chest with his right hand. The nude torso of the figure reflects the half-naked figure of Jesus on the cross. Despite his grey hair and long triangular grey beard, Saint Jerome’s body is depicted as modeled and powerful. He sits in front of a rocky table on which there is an hourglass, an ink pot and pen, a skull and two books. A rose-red shiny tunic covers the lower part of the Saint’s body. Behind the figure, a cardinal’s hat in the same hue as the tunic, is hanging against the rock to the left. The dark colours of the rock wall of the cave in the background behind the Saint provides the setting and creates a contrast with his luminous figure. The sky at the upper left, has a bluish-white bright hue.
Scholars agree that the picture was executed by El Greco around 1595–1600 (Brigstocke 1993, p.76). Apart from this painting, a second version of this composition exists in the collection of the Marqués de Santa María de Silvela y de Castañar in Madrid shares a similar high quality regarding the technique, although it is less well-preserved than the version belonging to the National Galleries of Scotland. Other versions of this work exist in Diputación Provincial in Madrid (on loan from the Prado, Madrid) and in Hispanic Society in New York (Wethey 1958, p.132). Art historian Hugh Brigstocke mentions that this particular painting is of superb condition in comparison to the three other versions which are known (Brigstocke 1993, p.76).
Art historian Harold E. Wethey stresses that this composition is an imitation of Titian’s St. Jerome in Penitence 1575 which is in the Escorial and Brera Gallery in Milan (Wethey 1958, p.132). Yet, contrary to Titian’s composition El Greco’s painting includes elements of high Renaissance Mannerism in the artist’s use of perspective. As Wethey observes: ‘El Greco has calculated his design so that the half-length body of the saint occupies most of the picture and thus dominates the composition. The rock wall of the cave, brought up close behind the figure, eliminates depth in a Mannerist design’ (Wethey 1958, p.132).
El Greco illustrates Saint Jerome surrounded by his conventional attributes, with several symbolic elements included. The hour glass expresses transience, the skull is a common symbol of death and mortality, whereas the pen, ink pot and two books recall the intellect of the Saint, as he is most well-known for translating the Bible from its original Hebrew into the Latin Vulgate (Lopera 1999, p.415). The hat in the background is an apparent indication of the Saint’s rank as cardinal and the cave-like setting recalls his ascetic years in the Syrian desert. Despite these references, El Greco’s intent was to focus on the Saint’s confessional penitence. Hence, the stone that he holds is a symbol of mortification and self-punishment, used to hit himself on the chest in penance to avoid the visions of pleasure that interrupted his meditations (Vallentin 1954, p.197). The dynamism of the painting is rooted in the intense way in which Saint Jerome contemplates the crucifix. As art historian Antonina Vallentin has pointed out: ‘His emotions run deep and are only betrayed by His intense gaze at the crucifix he holds…The atmosphere of the picture is almost electrified; each object seems to irradiate a light on its own; the colours seem to change before the spectator’s eyes’ (Vallentin 1954, p.197).
The theme of penitence was popular during the Counter-Reformation due to the importance given to confession during the Council of Trent (1545–63). In this context, this type of illustration encouraged Catholics to value penitence as one of the ways in which to achieve salvation. The importance of faith and good works in man’s redemption is clearly expressed in all three of El Greco’s images relating to martyrdom: Saint Jerome in Penitence, Saint Peter in Tears (El Greco Museum in Toledo) and Mary Magdalene in Penitence which exists in multiple versions. (Lopera 1999, p.414).
- Antonina Vallentin, El Greco, London 1954, p.197.
- Harold Edwin Wethey, El Greco and his School, Princeton 1958, pp.132-34.
- Hugh Brigstocke, Italian and Spanish Paintings in the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh 1993, pp.75–6.
- José Álvarez Lopera, El Greco. Identity and Transformation, Italy 1999, pp.414–15.
The University of Edinburgh