Icon with St Jerome2018-12-21T13:55:06+00:00

Icon with St Jerome

Venice or Crete, first half of the 15th century
35.2cm; W. 28.3cm

Provenance: once in the possession of John Ruskin, the panel was given by its owner to the painter William Ward (1829-1908). Alfred de Pass (according to a label on the back) purchased it from Ward before 1905 when it was exhibited at the Burlington Fine Arts Club (no. 8). It was presented to the National Gallery in 1920 (no. 3543) and transferred to the British Museum in 1994.

Reg. no. BEP 1994,0501.1

(Cormack 26)

The icon is painted in egg tempera, with gold leaf, on cypress wood primed with gesso. St Jerome is depicted extracting the thorn from the lion’s paw. He wears a cardinal’s red cloak and hat, and is seated on a massive throne in front of a lectern upon which is placed an open, inscribed book. The inscription on the book is in Latin in black letters: IRAM VINCE PATIE(N)CIA. AM(A) S(C)IE(N)CIA(M)Z SCRIPT(U)RARVM CARNIS VINSIA NO(N) AMAB(IS) (‘Overcome wrath through patience; love the knowledge of the Scriptures and you will not love the sins of the flesh’). In the rocky landscape, a three-aisled basilica appears at the right.

The icon represents an episode from the second version of the Life (Vita Secunda) of St Jerome. The episode is also included, with slight variations, in the medieval collection of Saints’ Lives known as the Golden Legend (Ring 1945; Rice 1985; Dunn-Lardeau 1997). According to this text, the saint, while preaching to his disciples in the monastery he had founded in Bethlehem, tamed a wild lion in pain by extracting, with his quill pen as a tool, a thorn from its paw. The saint in the icon is depicted as an elderly cardinal with halo, seated on a massive wooden-carved throne in a rocky landscape with sparse low trees. Cinnabar red emphasizes the red hat (galerus ruber) and the long hooded furry mantle (cappa magna) that identified the rank of cardinal from the 13th century onwards. A three-aisled wooden-roofed basilica with arched openings and late Gothic architectural ornaments appears on the right. A wooden lectern to the saint’s left supports an open book with inscription. The text paraphrases, in majuscule Gothic lettering, an extract from St Jerome’s Letters (Wright 1933) from which the inscriptions included in the western representations of the saint typically derive (Kaftal 1978). The episode has been interpreted as the victory of virtue over vice (Russo 1987; Ribberdos 1984).

St Jerome died in 420 (BHL 1898-1901), and was famous for his learning and literary activity. He was the translator of the Greek Bible into Latin (the Vulgate). He was one of the most popular doctores ecclesiae (Doctors of the Church) in the West. His depictions as a cardinal in a studio or in a desert landscape curing the lion and as a monk in penitence were already known in western iconography by the 9th century (Jungblut 1967). They became popular during the 14th century, first in the art of north and central Italy, mainly Tuscany (Cormack 2007; Friedmann 1980) and, later, in Flemish paintings and German engravings (Constantoudaki-Kitromilides 1998).

The same elements of the scene with the lion in the BM icon appear in three wooden panels painted in a similar style: an icon with St Jerome with the Lion at the Academy of Concordi in Rovigo, Italy (Romagnolo 1981), an icon at the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art in Chicago (no. K 1109: Shapley 1966), and a wooden panel that used to belong to the Raimond van Marle collection in Perugia, Italy (van Marle 1936). The provenance of the style of all four pieces is highly contentious: their ancestry is not generically either western or Byzantine. This led to the attribution, in previous literature, of the BM icon to a 14th or 15th century ‘Venetian’ or ‘Venetian/Dalmatian’ location (van Marle 1924; Kondakov 1927; Ring 1945; Davies 1951; Palluchini 1964; Davies 1988). Only recently has the icon been assigned to a late 15th-century Cretan painter (V. Foundoulaki in Buckton 1994; Constantoudaki-Kitromilides 1998, 194, n. 7; Constantoudaki-Kitromilides 2011, 331–2, fig. 1).

The heavy garments of St Jerome, characteristic of the ‘late Gothic style’ that must have fascinated John Ruskin, the original owner of the panel, as well as the large solid throne, seem to point directly to the West, and to Tuscan and early Renaissance paintings in particular. The rendering of the perspective, however, as well as the face and hands of the saint betray a painter familiar with the work of late Byzantine and early post-Byzantine painters such as the Cretan Angelos Akotantos (d. c. 1450), Andreas (d. 1492) and, mainly, Nikolaos Ritzos (d. 1503). The BM icon bears strong stylistic affinities with the icon with SS Augustine, Jerome and Benedict now at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Both of them have been attributed recently to a 15th-century painter from Venetian Crete and, at the same time, linked with the patronage of Cardinal Bessarion (formerly the Greek Bishop of Nicaea but later after his conversion to Catholicism appointed a cardinal by the Pope). He died in 1472 (Constantoudaki-Kitromilides 1998; Kotoula 2011).

Bessarion supported the reunion of the Orthodox and Catholic churches, and was known particularly to admire the personality and work of St Jerome, a cardinal himself of the early Christian church. He owned a number of copies of St Jerome’s Letters, while the two-volume parchment codex of 1468, which bears his signature, includes an extended version of the episode with the lion (Marc. Lat. Membr. 1–2 (no. 88454), vol.1, fol. 8v–9r). Bessarion befriended the humanist and scholar Nicolaus Cusanus, a fervent admirer too of St Jerome (Constantoudaki- Kitromilides 1998, 213–14). At the same time he maintained throughout his career strong links with Crete, and with Candia in particular (Saffrey 1994), where the Franciscan order had established a monastery with a chapel dedicated to St Jerome (Vassilaki 2009, 247). In 1462, Bessarion founded in Candia a fund to sponsor and promote the pro-unionist interests on the island (Tsirpanles 1967). In this context, his personal connection with the icons of the BM and the Fitzwilliam Museum appears a reasonable hypothesis.

Representations of St Jerome were not unknown to late Byzantine and early post-Byzantine painting (Vassilaki 2009, 245, n. 48). Although western saints, such as SS Francis and Bartholomew, were included in the fresco cycles of Cretan churches as early as the 13th century (Vassilaki-Mavrakaki 1982), representations of the episode of St Jerome curing the lion appeared in Cretan icon painting during the late 15th century. Their iconography seems to have been influenced by a similar episode from the Byzantine cycle of St Jerome (Baltoyanni 2003, 208–11).

The lion, reclining at the feet of the saint, the cardinal’s official garments and the basilica at the background are found in representations of St Jerome in the late 15th and 16th centuries, such as the Geneva triptych attributed to Andreas Pavias (Frigerio-Zeniou and Martiniani-Reber 2006), two small icons in the National Museum of Ravenna (Pavan 1979 and Angiolini-Martinelli 1982) and the Musei Civici in Padova (Chatzidakis 1993, 120–1, no. 27) as well as a small icon now in a private collection in Switzerland (Constantoudaki-Kitromilides 2011, 355, fig. 18). Others omit the basilica in the background, such as the Vatican triptych attributed to Angelos or his circle (Bianco-Fiorin 1995; Vassilaki 2009, 19, fig. 6.11), the London triptych attributed to the cycle of Pavias (Baltoyanni 2003, 212–15, no. 36, figs 72–5), as well as three works signed by or attributed to Angelos Pitzamanos and his circle—the Athens Byzantine and Christian Museum icon (Chatzidakis 1993, 123, fig. 14), the predella executed in 1518 now in the Dubrovnik Monastery of the Franciscans (Weitzmann et.al. 1982; Vassilaki 2009, 244–5, figs 11.13 and 11.14) and a triptych leaf now in a private collection in London (Baltoyanni 2003, 313; Sotheby’s 2001) all echo the BM panel.

The conclusion is that either Bessarion himself or someone close to him promoted the connection between the scholar monk and cardinal Jerome and the catholic convert Bessarion, also a monk and cardinal. This panel evokes the connection pictorially.

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Dimitra Kotoula