In this panel, Hieronymus (Jheronimus) Bosch, depicts his name saint as a penitent. Church Father St Jerome (another Hieronymus) withdrew from public life for a while at the age of 38 to practice asceticism. Bosch depicts him lying half-naked and praying with the crucifix in his arms; he has literally left his robe, hat and book behind him. The clear and open landscape in the distance forms a contrast with the fierce and dark desert in the foreground. The rocky surroundings are "populated" with strange-looking plants and all kinds of animals, which will undoubtedly have had a symbolic meaning for Bosch's contemporaries. This opposition of good (bright) and evil (dark) is often the central theme in his work. This panel is situated quite early in his oeuvre.
In Bosch's age, saints were "positive role models" according to Paul van den Broeck. They showed the way from a sinful existence to a life at a higher, but still attainable level. The ultimate example of Christ, the Son of God, was of course, by definition, "inimitable". Bosch painted only a few saints. His interest was limited to the hermits among them, Anthony and Jerome in particular. These wise men radically forsook the world and its wicked temptations. To Bosch, they were paragons of self-discipline, fortitude, self-knowledge and strength. Not surprisingly, those virtues happen to be the qualities that fit perfectly in the ideology of the citizens of Bosch's age and in the philosophy of many Humanists. Bosch also often criticised worldly ambitions. The hermits gave him a chance to indulge in one of his favourite subjects: the many lures set by evil and lurking in every corner.
Bosch's St Jerome has the company of all kinds of birds and other animals. There is an intriguing little fox in the dark bottom left corner, shown as if asleep. The fox was a traditional symbol of guile and cunning from time immemorial. In religious terms, the fox signifies the heretic and the sinner, and sometimes even Satan himself. The dead cockerel beside it then becomes a symbol of the foolish, proud and boastful man who has been outsmarted by the wily fox. The owl is another negative symbol in this painting. In Bosch's age, the owl stood for the creatures of the dark that shun the light, and for foolishness. The owl often pounces on innocent birds or spies on them, as here. This owl embodies enticing evil in search of prey. The innocent and naïve great tit on the other branch will be its next victim.
The lion is the traditional attribute of St Jerome. According to a popular legend, Jerome once helped a lion by removing a thorn from its paw, after which they became friends for life. This very meek lion looks rather like an overgrown pussycat.
SizeH: 80,1 cm
MediumOil on panel