(b. ca. 1440, Seligenstadt, d. 1494, Bruges)
Oil on oak panel, 87,8 x 59,2 cm
Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel
The legend of this fourth-century doctor of the Church only began to take shape in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. He was raised to the rank of cardinal, and given a faithful companion in the shape of a lion, from whose paw he was said to have removed a thorn. During his life as a hermit in the Syrian desert, Jerome sought to banish his sinful thoughts by chastising himself. The motif of the saint beating his chest with a stone was probably inspired by Italian examples, although no clear prototype springs to mind. Nevertheless, this still appears to be the first Netherlandish work to present on such a monumental scale a subject that was to become one of art's iconographical mainstays from the sixteenth century onwards. Interestingly, several similar paintings, possibly influenced by Memling, were produced in Bruges around this period and immediately afterwards. The saint kneels before a crucifix, bearded and bald, with the dark brown robe of the penitent about his naked body. His figure is tall and slim, and almost fills the foreground of the painting. Small, transparent droplets of blood well up from his bruised chest. His scarlet cardinal's cloak and hat lie on the ground behind him, as if he had just cast them off. The lion lies down faithfully beside him. The scene is enacted on a rocky plateau before a cave, which is the hermit's retreat.
This fairly large panel is not very well known, and is sometimes treated with a degree of caution. Nevertheless, it is a fine example in every respect of Memling's vision and technique. Monumentally conceived, yet executed with an undramatically fresh and guileless realism, this St Jerome is one of the most elegant large figures in the artist's oeuvre. The spatial character of the slim, half-naked saint is comparable with the Stuttgart Bathsheba. The extremely free underdrawing, the elongated body shapes and a physiognomy that seems to prefigure that of Van Cleve or Massys suggest that both paintings were executed fairly late, although additional evidence would be required for more precise dating. A characteristic Memling trait is the way the emblematic attributes such as the crucifix, the lion and the cardinal's clothes are included in a natural manner. Taken together, it is like a moment from a story, despite the fact that the depicted elements refer to different periods of the saint's life. Furthermore, the crucifix consists of a genuine flesh-and-blood little body, put to death in miniature, with no attempt on the artist's part to portray it as a vision.
We do not know whether the panel was autonomous, or whether it had wings or a companion piece. The small fragment depicting St Jerome and the Lion might have formed part of the left wing (private collection).