Milan 1440/1445 – Pavia or Milan
Saint Jerome removing a thorn from the lion's paw
[San Girolamo estrae una spina dalla zampa del leone] 1461-63
oil on wood panel
53.0 (h) x 36.0 (w) cm Accademia Carrara, Bergamo
Legacy of Guglielmo Lochis 1866
The image of Saint Jerome is attributed to a rather mysterious but extremely well documented artist, Zanetto Bugatto, who from his earliest years was believed to be especially able in painting copies and was active at the Milanese court of the Sforza. Bugatto’s panel is a coloured copy after a monochrome representation of the saint by Rogier van der Weyden, the external image on one of the side panels of a small altarpiece, most likely commissioned by Alessandro Sforza (1409–1473), Lord of Pesaro, when at the court of Philip the Good at Brussels in 1458.
In 1460 Bianca Maria Sforza sent a letter of recommendation to Philip the Good to give Bugatto the opportunity to travel to Flanders to improve his technique and to imitate Flemish practice. By May 1463 Bugatto was back in Milan after only a few years in Brussels, having quarrelled with Rogier. The Milanese ambassador reported that Bugatto had abandoned Rogier’s studio and that the Dauphin (later Louis XI of France) had intervened to reconcile them, presumably without success. Bianca Maria Sforza wrote a warm letter of thanks to Rogier in recognition that Bugatto’s style had been transformed. Bugatto’s sojourn is a reflection of the widespread admiration in Italy for Flemish painting, an intellectual interest that was reinforced by virtue of trade. The Bergamo panel is the only example of a derivation from a known work by Rogier van der Weyden from that period. Count Guglielmo Lochis may have collected such a work as evidence of the Sforza Milanese court’s passion for international painting. It is a work of extraordinarily high quality showing a real understanding of Flemish technique. Other paintings that combine Flemish technique with Northern Italian mannerisms have been attributed to Bugatto, the Portrait of Galeazzo Maria Sforza c.1474-1476, and the Virgin and Child before 1470.
Rogier van der Weyden’s altarpiece has as the central panel of the triptych a Crucifixion with lively and unusual depictions of donors on Calvary: the man in armour at the right of the Cross being identified by the huge coat of arms as Alessandro Sforza; while the figures on the other side of the Cross may be identified as his first wife, Costanza, and her brother Rodolfo Varano. The outer shutters have monochrome representations of Saint George and Saint Jerome.
In his copy of the image of the much venerated humanist saint, and perhaps as a competitive Italian, Bugatto has transformed the representation of Saint Jerome by introducing colour and a detailed landscape background informed by the central panel of the Sforza triptych. According to tradition Jerome is depicted in the robes of a cardinal, rendered in a gorgeous red. The setting refers to the time he spent in retreat in the Syrian desert. He is accompanied by his attribute, a rather docile lion from whose paw he extracts a thorn—an incident from a popular Medieval legend which tells how Jerome tamed the creature thus making the lion his faithful companion. Behind Saint Jerome is his makeshift monk’s cell with the altar set into a niche in the rockface.
Luke Syson, ‘Zanetto Bugatto, court portraitist in Sforza Milan’, Burlington Magazine, vol. 138 (May 1996), pp. 300–08.
Giovanni Valagussa, Rinascimento Lombardo. Dipinti dalla Accademia Carrara di Bergamo, Treviglio: Tipoliyo CFV, 2010, pp. 5–8.
Rogier van der Weyden (c.1399–1464), Sforza triptych c.1460, Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels.
Martin Davies, Rogier van der Weyden: An essay, with a critical catalogue of paintings assigned to him and to Robert Campin, London: Phaidon, 1972, pp. 206–08.
Castello Sforzesco, Milan.
Fondazione Cagnola Gazzarda, Varese.