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100 Best Paintings in London

Text by Geoffrey Smith


Arcadian Dreams / Symbolist Visions


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Antonello da Messina: St Jerome in his Study - c1475

London, National Gallery

Antonello is traditionally given credit for the introduction into Italy of painting with oil glazes, a technique perfected by Jan van Eyck, where thin translucent layers of oil paint are painstakingly built up enabling the artist unparalleled scope for the depiction and modulation of detail. There is no independent evidence for this and there is some scepticism among scholars, but whatever the truth may be, this picture shows only too well why this notion should have been accepted. It is every inch an Eyckian work revelling in the meticulous, finely focused representation of every last detail from each individual floor tile to an ornithologically precise portrayal of a partridge, a recondite symbol of truth but so accurate that Audubon would have been proud of it. Antonello has also employed here the so-called ‘empirical’ method of perspective used in the Netherlands — only in later works did he adopt the Italian system based on mathematical exactitude. It may even be the case that this composition is partly based on one wing of a triptych by van Eyck (now lost but known to have been painted for an Italian client) which depicted the same saint in his library.

How these strong northern traits came to be so wonderfully employed by an artist who spent most of his life in Sicily is a mystery. But large slices of his life are undocumented — it may be that he saw some Netherlandish works in Naples, or in Milan when he travelled in northern Italy, but this does not necessarily explain how he acquired such mastery in a technique which was new to Italy. When he visited Venice in 1475–6 he seems to have had a considerable influence on such artists as Giovanni Bellini but his visits to mainland Italy also had their effect on Antonello whose later works exhibit more Italianate influences especially from Piero della Francesca, producing a fusion of north and south.

Here we see St Jerome at work in his carrel (a wooden study usually constructed in a cloister), spied through a Late Gothic opening, surrounded by his books and a variety of other beautifully realised objects, many of them replete with symbolism, illuminated by the light flooding past the viewer into the hallowed space. And what a mysterious edifice this sanctuary is, full of shadows but with views out onto a bucolic idyll — birds can be seen through the clerestory wheeling in the evening sky; framed in the window to the left a boat glides past on the still waters of a peaceful river.

After spending a number of years in the Syrian desert devoted to the ascetic life (as one did in the 370s AD), Jerome became secretary to Pope Damasus who asked him to translate the Bible from Greek into Latin. He devoted the rest of his life to the task and this is how Antonello has chosen to show him, as a scholar, and one of the four ‘doctors’ of the Latin Church, intent on his studies. Two of his attributes appear nearby — although the office of cardinal did not exist during Jerome’s life he is often shown in cardinal’s apparel and Antonello has placed his cardinal’s hat on the shelf behind him. In the shadows of the colonnade, there lurks a rather incongruous lion who co-stars with Jerome in many paintings by numerous artists. Often these show the saint during his time in the desert when he took pity on the beast and bravely extracted a thorn from its paw thereby earning the lion’s eternal gratitude.

Image: Courtesy of the National Gallery, London

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Contemporary Works

c1472 Leonardo da Vinci: Annunciation; Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi

1475 Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo: Martyrdom of St Sebastian; London, National Gallery

1476 Hugo van der Goes: Portinari Altarpiece; Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi

Further Paintings of Interest

The Battle of San Romano

Paolo Uccello

St John the Evangelist

Piero della Francesca

Baptism of Christ

Piero della Francesca