Penitent St. Jerome, or St. Jerome in the Desert

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Penitent St. Jerome, or St. Jerome in the Desert
This single tapestry, better known in Spanish as a paño de devocion, was a panel specifically commissioned and designated for devotional use in a private chapel or oratory. This tapestry did not form part of a larger series or cycle but was made as an independent weaving. Tapestry panels were intended to be portable in order to travel with its elite owners. As princes progressed from one residence or palace to another, tapestries, such as this outstanding example, could be easily rolled up, transported and re-hung in a new environment.

St. Jerome and the lion

St. Jerome, one of the four fathers of the Church, is represented in a wooded landscape with his companion, the lion. The saint venerates a painting in which the figure of Christ crucified is shown. The elderly man has taken off his cardinal’s cloak and hat and is paying tribute to Christ. He shows his penitence by striking his chest with a stone. St. Jerome is envisaged here as both a cardinal and a doctor of the Church; St. Jerome one of the translators of the Holy Scriptures. The scene we are witnessing is when St. Jerome was a hermit in the desert near Antioch, but instead of being depicted as a half-naked hermit in a hair shirt, St. Jerome is wearing his rich, bejeweled Church robe.

A Habsburg Patron?

The patron who commissioned this work must have cultivated a particular, private devotion to this saint, and both at the Spanish and Portuguese courts royal queens, princesses and monarchs were devoted to the Hieronymite Orders established in Iberia. Many Habsburgs who commissioned such luxurious, opulent tapestries from Brussels could have easily have been the patron of this panel: Juana I of Castile, her son, Emperor Charles V, or his aunt Margaret of Austria. This panel appears for the first time in a 1593 list of devotional objects and tapestries donated by Philip II of Spain to the Old Church (Iglesia Vieja) of the Escorial monastery where it was described as: “San Jerónimo en la penitencia, con el capelo y sombrero colgado de un tronco de un árbol, y un león a los pies.” Subsequently listed as a paño suelto in later documentation.

A mystery

The patron who commissioned this magnificent panel is not known and even less is known about its conception, production and manufacture. Nor is the designer of the model known but stylistically the weaving has close similarities with the paintings and miniature illuminations of the Bruges school of the first decades of the sixteenth century. The artist who drew the cartoon may have been a painter who formed part of the circle of Hans Memling or the entrourage of Gerard David. Memling’s influence can be seen in the rendition of the landscape in rich vibrant colors, displaying a type of wooded desert commonly represented in Northern Renaissance and Flemish art around 1500. The forest symbolizes here the religious suffering of the penitent saint. Pomegranates, symbols of eternity, hang from the tree to which the painting of the crucified Christ is nailed to. At the foot of the tree are deer, symbols of the 12 Apostles. The owl in the tree to the left symbolizes wisdom. While in the background, a vignette shows St. Jerome pulling the thorn from the lion’s paw. Although the iconography and style recalls late fifteenth century tapestry productions, this panel can be securely dated to the first two decades of the sixteenth century.

The borders

The borders of this panel are decorated with rectangles showing garlands of flowers intersected by smaller square sections in which small blue flowers are woven. The rendition of the overall details, the flowers, animals and background architecture is meticulous.


P. Junquera de Vega and C. Herrero Carretero, Catálogo de Tapices de Patrimonio Nacional. Volumen I: Siglo XVI, Madrid, 1986, p. 33.

I. van Tichelen, “St. Jerome Penitent”, in Tissus d’Or. Tapisseries Flamandes de la Couronne Espagnole, Malines, 1993, pp. 27-31.

A. Jordan, “Tapestry”, Museu de Lamego. Guide, Lisbon, 1998, pp. 33-45.

C. Herrero Carretero, Tapices de Isabel la Católica. Origen de la colección real española, Madrid, 2004, pp. 67-69 and p. 120.

F. Checa, Tapisseries Flamandes pour les Ducs de Bourgogne, L’Empereur Charles Quint et le Roi Philippe II, Brussels, 2008, pp. 88-94.

Models Cartoon attributed to the circle of Hans Memling (ca. 1433-1493) or Gerard David (ca. 1450-1523)

Manufacture Unknown Weaver, possibly the workshop of Pieter van Aelst (or van Edingen). Brussels, ca. 1510-1520

Fabric Silk and wool

Size 290 x 275 cm

Location RoyalPalace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Segovia

Origin Mentioned for the first time in the collection of Philip II

Exhibition Tapestry Museum

National Heritage Inv. 10026285


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