The present sheet is one of twenty drawings in which Parmigianino developed the figure of Saint Jerome for his most famous altarpiece, the Madonna of the Long Neck (fig. 1; Florence, Uffizi). Commissioned in December 1534 for the Baiardo family chapel in Santa Maria de' Servi in Parma, the picture included Saint Jerome as a key proponent of the cult of the Madonna. The saint was originally conceived as one of a pair, with Saint Francis, who would flank the Madonna and Child in the customary form of a sacra conversazione, but Parmigianino reimagined the composition at an early stage of the commission in order to provide the innovative asymmetrical arrangement of the final picture. The two saints were moved into the background, where Parmigianino envisaged them in a forceful group which would provide a counterpoint to the dominant foreground figures of Madonna, Child and angels. When discussing the preparatory studies for the painting, Popham noted that it is difficult accurately to trace the chronology of the sheets (A.E. Popham, Catalogue of the Drawings of Parmigianino, New Haven and London, 1971, I, under no. 26).
It seems likely, nevertheless, that the present meticulous life study relates to the first stages of Parmigianino's imaginative reworking of the composition. The position of the model's legs remains unaltered in the final painting, although the saint's body has been considerably changed in order to suggest a more dynamic and powerful stance. The development of the upper body can be followed in a pen drawing at Parma (Popham 537), which preserves the pose of the torso and arms from the present drawing, but introduces the dramatic turn of the head that would appear in the final picture. The next stage is apparently represented in a sheet of drawings in the Ashmolean (Popham 334), where the right-hand study shows the saint's legs and head positioned as they appear in the Parma drawing but reworks the arms, then using this new pose as the starting point for further explorations in which Parmigianino considered the impact of showing the saint from the back. At this stage he still intended to include both Saints Jerome and Francis, but in the final picture decided to omit Saint Francis, leaving Saint Jerome as a heroic, solitary and striking figure.
This drawing is one of Parmigianino's very rare life studies of a male nude done from a studio model, 'an approach to design common in Florence but for which the Parmese artist seems to have had little patience and perhaps no training' (Franklin, op. cit., p. 251).