Pathos allied to elegance defines the present painting of the hermit Saint Jerome, whose faith was tested and strengthened through long periods of isolation in the wilderness. Pressed against the picture plane so that his semi-clad figure dominates the composition, Jerome stares fervently at a crucifix while crossing his arms, a rock used for penitence cradled in his hand. Although his billowy white beard and the fine lines around his eyes speak of his advanced age, the saint retains muscle tone, his body thus acting as an external manifestation of his internal strength. The sense of compression that governs the scene is heightened by Jerome’s cave dwelling looming behind him and by the overlapping hills that scale the horizon. Further enclosing the saint is a lion, described in hagiographies as his trusted companion since he removed a painful thorn from the animal’s paw. Nestled between Jerome’s left arm and the edge of the picture, the creature looks directly at the viewer with soulful eyes that seem to mask knowledge beyond the reach of most felines.
Inviting close inspection of Jerome in a moment of profound worship, the present lot was likely intended for personal devotion. In the early 20th century, the painting was owned by the famed art historian and collector, Charles Alexander Loeser, who had moved to Florence in 1890. Upon his death, Loeser bequeathed 262 Old Master drawings to Harvard University, eight paintings by Cezanne to the White House in Washington and thirty-two sculptures and paintings to the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence. In addition to the present lot, Loeser's posthumous sale in 1959 also included Gentile da Fabriano's Saint Paul the Hermit (sold Christie's, London, 22 April 1994, lot 55), Jacopo del Casentino's Dormition of the Virgin (offered Sotheby's, 8 July 1992, lot 24), Salvator Rosa's Jason charming the dragon (Montreal Museum of Fine Arts) and a Penitent Magdalene by Crespi. Working from photographs, Ann Rebecca Milstein rejected the attribution to Bedoli in her 1978 Ph.D. dissertation (loc. cit.), and proposed that it was instead by a late 16th century north Italian artist inspired by Girolamo Muziano, an idea suggested to her by Sydney Freedberg. Following a recent cleaning of the painting which removed disfiguring overpaint, however, David Ekserdjian restored the attribution to Bedoli on the basis of firsthand examination.
Born in Viadana, Bedoli was a cousin by marriage to Parmigianino, and flourished as a painter in Parma’s artistic scene of the 1530s and ‘40s. Several of Bedoli’s works speak of his deep connection to Parmigianino’s art, including the present lot, as evidenced, for example, by Jerome’s silky beard and graceful, elongated fingers. In particular, the saint’s physiognomy and proximity to the picture plane merits comparison with Parmigianino’s Zacharias in his Madonna and Child with Infant Saint John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene and Saint Zacharias of circa 1527-30 (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence).