For four years, Saint Jerome retreated to the desert to the southeast of Antioch (in modern-day Turkey), where he purified his soul through physical suffering. Seated before the vaulted ruin of his desert hermitage, his wiry limbs, sunken eye sockets, and tanned skin are a testament to the harsh conditions of ascetic life. He directs his gaze to the crucifix that he holds in his left hand. During his time of religious contemplation, Jerome was tormented by vivid temptation-filled hallucinations; his right hand clasps a rock with which he would beat his breast until the visions passed. A nook in the structure behind him holds his attributes: a cardinal’s hat and a book referring to his later work of translating the Bible into Latin. A small lion inside the shelter recalls another episode in Jerome’s life, when he pulled a thorn from a lion’s paw, forever securing the animal’s devotion.
The elongated forms, taut, linear rhythms, subtle colors, and meticulous, gold-flecked details of this painting indicate that it was intended for a well-off patron with refined taste, perhaps a member of Ferrara’s ruling Este court where Ercole de’ Roberti later became official painter.