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The Penitent Saint Jerome in his Study

Pensionante del Saraceni, or the Lodger of Saraceni
The Penitent Saint Jerome in his Study, c. 1615
Oil on canvas
Puchased 2004

This touching and evocative painting of a humble St. Jerome deep in prayer by a mysterious painter known as the “Pensionante del Saraceni” is a major discovery for the history of Baroque art in Rome. Neither the artist’s real name nor his birthplace is known. However in 1943, the highly respected scholar Roberto Longhi recognized a distinctive artistic personality behind a small group of paintings that were close in style to the work of Carlo Saraceni, but which had a distinguishing French or northern European accent. Longhi gave this elusive artist the sobriquet of Pensionante del Saraceni – literally “Saraceni’s lodger” or “tenant.” Carlo Saraceni painted in a Caravagesque style in Rome during the first decades of the seventeenth century.
An ardent Francophile, he dressed in French clothes, spoke the language fluently and had several French students and followers. Despite today’s research techniques, it is not unusual to encounter a seventeenth-century painter whose identity remains unknown.

The style of the Pensionante’s pictures indicates that he had direct knowledge of Caravaggio’s early works and must have been working in Rome during the 1620s and 1630s. The Pensionante responded not only to the immediacy of the emotional content in Caravaggio’s work, but also to his vigorous naturalism and tenebrous lighting (strong contrasts of light and dark created with a beam of raking light entering an interior space). Yet, the Pensionante also had a penchant for detail, a tendency often associated with art of northern Europe. Even Dürer – a Northern artist highly influenced by Italian art – reveals this penchant in his celebrated engraving of
St. Jerome in His Cell (1514). In fact, the interior still-life elements of shelves holding books, candles, scissors, and the hourglass, which we see in the Pensionante’s rendition of St. Jerome’s study, are reminiscent of Dürer’s print.

St. Jerome (342–420), one of four Latin Fathers of the Church, was a learned man who retired as a hermit to the Syrian desert for four years while he studied Hebrew. He later translated the Old and New Testaments into Latin. St. Jerome is most often portrayed in paintings as a scholar at work in his study, or as a dishevelled and partly naked penitent in the desert, kneeling before a crucifix, holding a stone with which to beat his breast, with a skull and hourglass (symbols of mortality) lying nearby. The Pensionante has clearly combined both versions here by placing a penitent St. Jerome deep in prayer in a corner of his study with his books and writing implements left abandoned on the table behind him. Caravaggio painted several versions of St. Jerome where he concentrated on the figure himself, omitting much of the setting whether desert or study. However, the Pensionante’s haggard and barely clad St. Jerome with his wrinkled face, grey hair and boney body, all revealed by the strong light from the left, is clearly derived from Caravaggio.