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Saint Jerome doing penitence in the desert

© 1999 RMN / Gérard Blot

Paintings
Italian painting

Author(s):
Aline François

This work may once have been part of the collection of Bernardo Rossi, Bishop of Treviso, who was the artist's patron. The isolation of the figure in the vast, wild, wooded landscape is exceptional in 16th century Italian art. It reflects the influence of German painting, which was very well known in Venice at the time.

A work inspired by northern European art

Saint Jerome lived as a hermit in the Syrian desert for a number of years, leading an austere life and spending his days - and nights - praying against hunger and thirst. He is shown sitting in the middle of a vast landscape. He has a long white beard and is holding a cross in one hand and a stone in the other to hit himself on the chest in penance. It is dusk and he is meditating on the Passion of Christ as recounted in the books that lay open before him. Right from his earliest works, Lotto developed a very personal artistic voice. In his youth he was influenced by Bellini, and also borrowed from northern European artists such as Dürer and Altdorfer, drawing on their love of detail and their gift for realistic observation of nature.

A painting for private worship

Lotto returned to this theme on several occasions. In this first version, the main subject of the painting is in fact nature. The small figure seems lost among the steep cliffs and the dense thickets of trees. The almost eerily luxuriant vegetation isolates the saint yet does not seem to affect him, so deep is his meditation.
The painting is thought to have belonged to Lotto's patron Bernardo Rossi, Bishop of Treviso, who commissioned the work. The bishop owned a number of books on Saint Jerome in his library. The size of the work and the relative insignificance of the human figure indicates that the work was intended for private worship. A number of art historians have demonstrated that this painting was used as a sliding cover for another work, probably a portrait of a sitter with the same Christian name as the saint. However, no trace of this second work survives.

Bibliography

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Technical description

  • Lorenzo LOTTO

    Saint Jerome doing penitence in the desert

    1506 (?)

  • Oil on board

    H. 48 cm; W. 40 cm

  • Acquired 1857

    M.I. 164

  • Paintings

    Denon wing
    1st floor
    Grande Galerie
    Room 5

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Additional information about the work

Signed and dated on the rock on the right: L. LOTUS 1500 or 1506