Saint Jerome in Prayer
Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (Cento 1591-1666 Bologna)
Standing out against a turbulent sky and a rocky landscape, Saint Jerome is portrayed half length, in the act of adoring a crucifix. His crimson-coloured cloak has slipped to the side, revealing a muscular torso, seemingly untouched by old age. Behind the saint sit an inkwell with a feather, propped on a shelf-like rock, and a book, presumably Jerome’s translation of the Bible (the so-called Vulgate), which he has temporarily interrupted to dedicate himself to prayer.
This painting, distinguished by a very high level of quality, was certainly executed by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri and can be dated on stylistic grounds to the end of the 1640s or the early 1650s, when the master from Cento was working in an increasingly elegant manner and with a lighter palette, influenced by the example of Guido Reni and Domenichino. In its refined choice of colours and sharp execution, our canvas is closely related to Guercino’s Lot and his Daughters, executed in 1650 for Girolamo Panessi (Gemäldegalerie, Dresden), or to his Vocation of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga painted in 1650–51 for the Theatine order at Guastalla (now Metropolitan Museum, New York). Both are also characterized, notwithstanding their differing original locations, by closely comparable lighting (see L. Salerno, I dipinti del Guercino, Rome, 1988, nos. 275 and 276 respectively).
These considerations indicate that, despite the recurrence of the present subject in Guercino’s Libro dei Conti, our painting is to be identified either with the “Saint Jerome half-length” for which the artist received payment from Girolamo Panessi 27 October 1648 or with one of the two “half-length figures”, including a Saint Jerome, for which the Count of Novellara paid Guercino, through Giovanni Battista Tartaglioni, on 29 November 1652 (see Il libro dei conti del Guercino, 1629–1666, ed. B. Ghelfi, Bologna, 1997, p. 140, no. 397, and p. 159, no. 462, respectively). Both works are yet to be identified with known paintings by the master and their descriptions closely match the present canvas.
The present composition was previously known through a version owned by the Museo di Capodimonte, currently in the Palazzo Reale in Naples, which can be attributed to Guercino’s workshop. Photographic comparison alone can reveal the superiority of the present canvas, which, also thanks to its excellent state of conservation, clearly displays the pictorial quality that the great master from Cento had developed in the course of his maturity. Treating a subject that he had already painted in his youth drove Guercino to seek new compositional solutions, which can be particularly appreciated in the emotional élan that pervades the image and in the vivid highlights that animate the palette.
The rediscovery of this painting constitutes an important addition to the established catalogue of works by Guercino, whose supreme mastery of expression is the cause of endless wonder.
Professor Daniele Benati, Bologna, 18 November 2016
"Ancient Art, European Works of Art and Sculpture, Furniture and Decorative Arts, Old Master Paintings"