St. Jerome was one of the four Latin Fathers of the Church. In Guercino’s time, he was regarded as one of the most important penitent saints, along with Sts. Peter, Mary Magdalen, and Francis. He was born in 345 A.D. to a well-established Christian family in Stridon, Dalmatia, and his education, as was common in Christian high society of his time, was firmly grounded in Greek and Roman literature. St. Jerome was popular long before Guercino painted him, above all because he is an ideal model of religious fervor. He chose exile in the desert in order to be purged of his sins. He took a vow of seclusion and abstinence after he had his first revelation–a dream of the sin of his interest in pagan script which occurred during his journey to the east. The saint remained in solitude in the Syrian desert for two years (in 374 and 376) where he learned Hebrew. St. Jerome’s most outstanding work was the Vulgate. He began the translation during his second stay in Rome (382-385) and completed it in Bethlehem, where he lived for the next thirty five years, until his death in 420. At the Council of Trent (1545-1563), St. Jerome’s Vulgate was declared the official scriptural text of the Catholic Church. It retained this status until 1979 when it was replaced by the New Vulgate.
The Spaniard Damasus I was elected to the papal throne in 366. He was known for his success in enhancing papal authority in both parts of the Roman Empire. Both Emperor Gratianus in the west and his co-Augustus Theodosius in the east yielded to Damasus’ demands concerning his prerogative in matters of the Church, as the historian Cesare Baronio (1538-1607) wrote in his Annales Ecclesiastici. Twelve hundred years later, Martin Luther initiated the Protestant Reformation which proved to be one of the greatest challenges to papal authority over Christendom.
Pope Damasus was a great benefactor and friend of St. Jerome. In Rome, St. Jerome served as Damasus’ secretary, and it was the pope who encouraged the saint to translate the Holy Scriptures into Latin. During his exile in the Syrian desert, St. Jerome corresponded with Damasus and, after his benefactor’s death, the saint settled in Bethlehem. In one of his many letters to Damasus known to us today, St. Jerome described the hardships he endured in the Syrian desert:
And because for my sins I exiled myself in that desert which
bounds Syria by its adjacent border of wasteland, and because of
the vast space that intervenes 1 cannot always, seek from Your
Sanctity the sanction of the Lord, therefore I follow here your
colleagues the Egyptian confessors and myself but a little
skiff–lie hid beneath these ships of burden.
In another letter to Damasus, St. Jerome referred to Christ’s readiness to pardon even those who ask forgiveness at the last moment. He mentioned the good thief who recognized Jesus just before his death on the cross, the prodigal son who did so after his return, the lost lamb Jesus carried back to the flock, and the conversion of St. Paul–four stories of either entering or returning to the realm of Christ. By showing St. Jerome sealing one of his letters to Damasus, Guercino’s painting invokes associations with these biblical events of repentance, forgiveness, and a return to the faith–appropriate themes to the era of the Counter-Reformation. It also asserts the importance of the Vulgate for the faith as it was composed by one of the Doctors of the Church under papal suggestion and approval.
Guercino’s St. Jerome Sealing a Letter, though related to penance, is unique in that, while the saint is shown in the desert, his action has nothing to do with penance as the act was portrayed, for example, in Titian’s St. Jerome . In some respects Guercino’s painting is very similar to Titian’s. In both, the saint is shown as an old man, half-naked, wearing a humble garment, placed in the wilderness, and accompanied by a lion. The cardinal’s red hat, prominently displayed by Titian on top of a rock between the saint and the crucifix, is missing from Guercino’s painting. In Titian’s work, St. Jerome wears a gray garment and not the usual red so as not to divert attention from the cardinal’s hat. There are many oil painting reproductions of St. Jerome in the market, but it is hard to find some museum quality reproduction which pays attention to those details, it is one of the most complicated paintings among all our artworks for sale, said by Arthur, the art director of Outpost Art.