El Greco and his workshop produced several paintings of Saint Jerome as a scholar. The two finest are in New York: a signed canvas (110.5 x 95.3 cm) in the Frick Collection, probably of the 1590s, and the present picture, which is generally considered to be an autograph replica of the following decade. Christiansen (in New York-London 2003-4, p. 190) reports that a direct comparison of the two paintings in 2001 demonstrated that despite their closeness in design, their "color harmonies and brushwork are strikingly different," and that the palette is paler and more brilliant in the Lehman version, and the execution broader. Similar differences in style are evident in El Greco’s portraits and religious pictures of the same decades.
The portrait-like quality of the face has often been noted, and in the past led to identifications with known contemporaries of the artist (see J. Brown in Sterling et al. 1998, p. 174). It seems likely that El Greco referred to a live model but not to a person who was meant to be recognized as a prominent churchman or other public figure in Toledo. However, a scholarly prelate, of the sort known to have commissioned works from El Greco (such as Pedro Salazar de Mendoza; see The Vision of Saint John; MMA 56.48), would have been a potential client for a painting of Saint Jerome, especially one presenting him in such a straightforward manner, standing at a desk in private, with a thumb marking his place in a book. It has been suggested that the cardinal has been interrupted by the viewer, but this conceit, common enough in portraits of living scholars and collectors, is clearly implausible given his unfocussed glance to the side. Saint Jerome has paused to reflect deeply on what he has read in the Bible, surely his own Latin translation (the Vulgate) from the Greek.
Saint Jerome (ca. 342–420), one of the Four Doctors of the Latin Church, was known for his outstanding classical education, and as a biblical scholar. The Order of Saint Jerome, the Hieronymites, was founded near Toledo in the 1300s, and by 1415 no less than twenty-five houses were established in Portugal and Spain. From the beginning the order enjoyed royal favor, as is seen in the majestic Jerónimos Monastery in the Belém parish of Lisbon, begun by Henry the Navigator about 1459 and continued by King Manuel I from 1501 onward, and San Jerónimo El Real in Madrid, founded by Isabella I in 1503. El Greco would have been most familiar with the Hieronymite monastery of San Pablo in Toledo, which in 1583 sold its church to the family of Fernando Niño de Guevara (see El Greco’s portrait of the later Cardinal-Archbishop; MMA 29.100.5).
Hieronymite monasteries in Spain were well known for their traditions of contemplation and humanistic learning, and for their important libraries. Presumably, these considerations influenced El Greco’s characterization of the saint. The presentation of Saint Jerome as a scholar, familiar from Dürer’s famous engraving of 1514 and from a good number of Early Renaissance paintings, was still fairly common in the later 1500s and early 1600s, but he was very often depicted as a hermit or (a new notion in El Greco’s time) as an ascetic-scholar at a desk (as seen in paintings by Jacopo Bassano, Titian, and Caravaggio).
Two paintings of Saint Jerome as a cardinal are listed in the 1614 inventory of El Greco’s studio, and two (probably the same) are cited in the 1621 inventory of his son Jorge Manuel’s possessions. In the latter, measurements are given, which correspond to 62 x 55 cm (no. 162) and 111 x 84 cm (no. 131). The larger picture could have been either the Frick’s or the Metropolitan’s picture, or yet another version.
[Walter Liedtke 2014]