Tintoretto’s St. Jerome in the Wilderness (1570’s)

This painting by Tintoretto of St. Jerome is a good example of why paintings by great artists are more rewarding if not taken at face value. Jerome, an ascetic, lived between the 4th and 5th centuries and is often depicted in the wilderness translating the Bible into Latin, the version now known as the Vulgate. It's his main claim to fame. What, then, should we look for?

Our first step, as usual, is to consider whether the protagonist's face bears any resemblance to the artist because, if it does, the image is probably not an external illustration of Church history but, more likely, a self-referential depiction of the artist's inner spirit.1

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Captions for image(s) above:

Tintoretto, St. Jerome in the Wilderness (1570's) Oil on canvas. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

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Sandwiched between two self-portraits by Tintoretto, the heavily bearded saint (center) does seem to resemble the artist. Note the shape and size of the nose and the receding hairline on both sides of his forehead.

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Captions for image(s) above:

L: Tintoretto, Detail of Self-portrait (c.1588) Louvre, Paris
C: Detail of Tintoretto's St. Jerome, rotated
R: Tintoretto, Detail of Self-portrait with a Book (c.1585) Uffizi, Florence

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Tintoretto spent lavishly on plaster casts of famous sculptures and owned one of the antique Belvedere Torso (left) which he seems to have used for Jerome's figure (right).[ref2} It suggests that he, like the subject of the torso, is both divine and ancient. Yet like other artists, he often mixed sources. Why? It adds meaning concisely.

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Captions for image(s) above:

L: Apollonios, Belvedere Torso, Vatican Museums (1st Cent. BC.)
R: Tintoretto, St. Jerome in the Wilderness

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The second source is a then well-known portrait of Raphael by Macantonio Raimondi (top L). You can see it in the arms hugging the torso, the prominent shoulder, the seated perch, the V-shape of books in the same position as a V-shaped shadow and a scene at top right where Raphael's canvas is. Jerome's shadow falls on the book just as Raphael's is on the wall to his left and a toga wraps them both. Jerome becomes an iconic "artist": part-Tintoretto, part-Raphael. But, since we look up at Jerome from the lion's level, we are probably looking through the lion's eyes into a mirror.4

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Captions for image(s) above:

L: Raimondi, Portrait of Raphael (c.1500-34) with diagram below. Engraving on paper.
R: Tintoretto, St. Jerome in the Wilderness (1570's)

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That's why the lion, face-on, also resembles Tintoretto. We seem to look through the craftsman's animal eyes (his physical eyes) as he conceives his soul in the mirror of his mind, the canvas.5 That soul has been crafted into the subject of the picture as the universal artist-creator sans ego (his own construction of Jerome). He then encourages us to follow the same path by adopting his view-point in front of the mirror-canvas. 

See conclusion below

Captions for image(s) above:

L: Tintoretto, Detail of St Jerome in the Wilderness (1570's)
R: Tintoretto, Detail of Louvre Self-portrait 

Click image to enlarge.

In painting or imagining ourselves, as Tintoretto did, we too can allow our humanity to flower through becoming more perfect human beings. To do so, though, we like the artist must use our imagination. As EPPH often shows, this kind of meaning is not unique to Tintoretto, Venetian art or Renaissance painting. We have found it in hundreds of artworks within the Western tradition. Included, free of charge, for those with imagination (i.e., the will to change) is an inkling of how they too can tread the universal path to spiritual growth. Or put more plainly for the modern mind, how we can become a better person.

More Works by Tintoretto

Notes:

1. This type of inner meaning, even inner subject in that EPPH does not view true art as externally focused, is one of the basic principles on which this site is based, rightly or wrongly. See EPPH Principles. For how artists often fuse their own facial features with a model's or portrait sitter's, go to the explanation under Portraiture.

2. On Tintoretto's collection of plaster casts: Lucy Whitaker, “Tintoretto’s Drawings after Sculpture and his Workshop Practice” in S. Currie and P. Motture (eds.), The Sculpted Object 1400-1700 (Aldershot: Scolar Press) 1997, p.179; for his copy of the Belvedere Torso, see Tintoretto: The Gonzaga Cycle (Munich: Alte Pinakothek) 2000, p.151.

3. Ever since he made them Marcantonio Raimondi's prints have been widely collected by artists for use in their studios, in part because of his relationship with Raphael. His Portrait of Raphael, though little-known today. was later used by Rembrandt and Jacques Callot in the 17th century, Edouard Manet in several paintings in the 19th century and Pablo Picasso in his Blue Period works. Examples on EPPH.

4. See the explanation of mirrors and mirror-surfaces in art under its theme: Mirrors.

5. For many other examples of artists portraying their features in an animal, see the theme Artist as Animal.

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 03 Nov 2015. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.