Penitent Saint Jerome1652. Oil on canvas, 77.2 x 71.8 cm.
Emerging from a dark background, a half-length image of a man appears in the close foreground, his right shoulder and arm bare, his hair white and long, his features aged. He holds a wooden cross in his left hand and with his right he strikes his chest with a stone. The cross identifies him as a saint; his nakedness and dishevelled appearance indicate he is a hermit or a penitent; the stone with which he wounds himself makes it clear that he is Saint Jerome. Though this attribute was not especially common, it would be sufficiently familiar for a large proportion of its viewers in the Golden Age. As an indication of the accessibility of the reference, one can cite a passage from Lope de Vega´s play, Amar sin saber a quién (Loving without knowing whom) (1620-22), where one of the characters refers to the monastery of Saint Jerome in the following fashion, alluding to the saint´s open wound on his chest: Subí, y piqué al monasterio del santo, que, como carta, hizo sello de una piedra sobre nema colorada. (I spurred [the mule] up to the monastery of that saint who, as upon a letter, making a stamp from a stone, pressed it against a red seal. Act 1, lines 298–301.) Of all the figures from sacred history, Ribera chose to portray Saint Jerome most frequently; nearly 30 paintings feature the saint, in addition to three widely disseminated prints. Images of Jerome appear throughout Ribera´s career and, in fact, his first signed work dated c.1614, was an image of this saint (Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto). In each case, Ribera avoided the standard iconography of Jerome dressed as a cardinal; rather, the artist presents him with an appearance and dress that emphasise his activity as a penitent -often accompanied by books, so as to recall the intellectual prestige of the man responsible for the Latin translation of the Bible, known as the Vulgate. Ribera´s predilection for presenting Jerome´ the penitent reflects not only the artist´s own interests in that aspect of the narrative, but it also responds to the expectations of his patrons and of the Catholic Church during the Counter Reformation. Such images, like similar ones of Mary Magdalene, were a means of defending the doctrine of penitence and repentance. This work, however, dispenses with any allusion to matters of the intellect, instead opting for a presentation that emphasises devotional sentiments. The saint here is not one who thinks or meditates but rather a believer who feels. The entire work communicates a sense of longing: the figure´s proximity in the foreground bringing him closer to the viewer; his expectant gaze toward heaven; his tousled, unkempt hair and beard suggesting a man who lives separate from any human contact; his body leaning forward; the determination with which he grasps the cross and the rock; even the brushwork itself. Ribera has executed the painting with extraordinarily lively brushstrokes, agile and confident, creating an impastoed texture that is particularly dense in the areas of his hands and hair, which have been built up from a series of rapid, clean, distinct touches of the brush. The format of this painting is almost square, something that is infrequent in Ribera´s output. The painting is signed and dated 1652, when the artist had already turned 60, and he had only a few remaining months of life. A comparison of this work with his earlier representations of Saint Jerome demonstrates the extent to which, over the course of his career, he had increasingly sought to provoke the viewer´s affective involvement, and how here he managed to achieve that objective (Portús, J.: Portrait of Spain. Masterpieces from the Prado, Queensland Art Gallery-Art Exhibitions Australia, 2012, p. 136).