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The St. Jerome theme
The subject of St. Jerome was often used by seventeenth-century Italian masters. Born in Dalmatia or in Venice, the saint (circa 340-420) was one of the great doctors of the Latin Church. After his baptism in Rome, he left for the Holy Land and withdrew to the Syrian desert for three years to repent. On his return to Rome, Pope Damasus entrusted him with the task of translating the Bible into Latin (Vulgate); his work was recognized as the official version of the Church by the Council of Trent. Pictures of the saint generally show him translating the Bible inspired by the Holy Ghost, seated at his writing table or repenting in the desert. In the drawing at the Louvre, Bernini chose to illustrate the latter scene, which gives scope for the expression of deep pathos. On his knees on a rock, the saint in adoration before a crucifix, fills the scene entirely. In the background on the right can be seen the lion whose friendship was won by Jerome after he had removed a thorn from its paw.
A mystic composition
Bernini was then sixty-seven years old and the choice of the devotion theme permitting the portrayal of intense mysticism reveals his growing piety. The contrasted use of wash on the emaciated bodies of the saint and lion, together with the broad, emphatic gesture of the former, perfectly express the intensely religious feeling described at length by F. Basan in his catalogue of the Mariette sale (1775, Lot 19): “A sentiment of love and faith can never be better rendered than by the expression seen in this drawing, whose thinking is sublime.” R. E. Spear (1966, p. 107) stressed the importance of this type of composition in the development of baroque painting in Rome, and particularly for the work of the Genoan Giovanni Battista Gaulli, known as “Il Baciccio,” who was in contact with Bernini after 1650. The Palazzo Chigi in Ariccia possesses a variant of this drawing.