The life of St Jerome, the theologian who translated the Bible from Aramaic and Greek into Latin during Late Antiquity, was a popular subject matter for painters during the Renaissance period and one which Titian returned to on more than one occasion. The oil-on-canvas painting, measuring 137cm by 97 cm, dates from 1575 AD and is on display to the public at the the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid.
The painting depicts St Jerome, half-crouching in a rocky environment and with his knee resting against a boulder, in a state of penitence. The saint, covered from the waist down in a red tunic that is draped over one shoulder, is looking up at a crucifix which is mounted on a thin tree branch which has been inserted into a cleft in the face of the rock in order to fix it in an upright position. One of the saint’s hands grasps a rock, representing the rocks with which penitents would strike their bare chests until the blood ran, while the other rests upon an opened Bible.
Shades of grey and brown dominate the background of the painting, a barren and inhospitable landscape in which saplings with bare branches and trees with twisted trunks are rooted in the rocky ground, and draw a stark contrast with the red of St Jerome’s tunic as well as the lightly tanned pigmentation of the subject's skin. The saint, sporting a medium-length grey beard and close-cropped grey hair that surrounds a bald pate, is an elderly man but his robust frame and the intensity of his gaze give the impression that he is of strong body and mind.
A flail, composed of twigs bound by twine, is propped up against the boulder near St Jerome’s feet while a lion can be seen reclining by the boulder in the right-hand corner of the painting. Penitents, seen on processions during religious holidays, would whip themselves with flails to punish themselves for their sins. The lion, of which only its head and shoulders are visible, refers to the legend in which the saint removed a thorn from a lion’s paw and gained its friendship as a result of his act of kindness.
Titian, now in his eighties, had become fixated on themes of mortality and suffering in his advanced years and may have identified with the ageing and penitent St Jerome that he portrays in the painting. Themes of mental anguish, religious fervour and physical torment are apparent in the open bible, the image of the crucified Christ and the rock that is clenched in the saint’s hand while the lion represents the subject’s compassion. The artist, nearing the end of his life and concerned for his immortal soul, may have projected his own mental struggles into the visual depiction of St Jerome.