What Makes a Masterpiece?

Unexpected pleasures.

by Dana B. Parlier | June 11, 2015

Bernini's St. Jerome
Gianlorenzo Bernini, St. Jerome, 1663. Chigi Chapel.

As a result of traveling in Europe for four and a half months, I learned some things.

First, hunting for art in Italy is one of the most satisfying activities an art lover can indulge in. The art is great, everywhere, and highly accessible. Second, where and how we see art affects the quality of our experience. When we see art in a church that has been prayed in for centuries, something magical occurs, as if the art is spiritually alive. Third, no matter how prepared we are for our art search, unexpected surprises can occur.

Such was the case when I stumbled upon Gianlorenzo Bernini’s St. Jerome and Mary Magdalen sculptures in the Chigi Chapel, Siena Duomo. These sculptures are easy to miss because they are located in a small, out-of-the-way chapel that is reserved for prayer. If upon entering you don’t turn around to look back toward the threshold you’ve just crossed, you won’t see the Bernini sculptures because they flank the doorway. Then, once inside, you must turn around to study the St. Jerome, since the seating and the sculptures face the altar. As you do, you are perceived as a trespasser by the congregants, and unless you convey respect, you will be asked to leave. To look at this sculpture for any length of time, you are made to feel that you are committing a sin, but once you do find it, you know you are in the presence of something extraordinary that you must pay attention to despite the difficulty.

For many reasons Bernini’s St. Jerome is one of my favorite sculptures. The work is larger than life-sized, made of marble, carved in traditional techniques, and designed to fit inside a chapel niche. Each of its elements—the flesh of St. Jerome, his hair, his crucifix, the drapery, and the lion—is sculpted differently from one another. St. Jerome’s stance forms the underlying design, which is based on an “x.” The drapery acts like a frame, exposing certain parts of the body while hiding others. It adds both complex texture that contrasts with his body and a swirling movement so indicative of the Baroque era. The x design, and swirling pattern allows Bernini to arrange the piece’s major elements in order to lead the viewer visually from one area to another.

The way Bernini sculpted St. Jerome’s body reveals much about the kind of life such a man must have lived; he is old and thin, but fit and not emaciated. Equally important to the overall message and composition is the friendship evident between St. Jerome and the lion. The lion enjoys the affectionate foot caressing to such an extent that you can almost hear him purr.

The focal point of this sculpture is the connection between St. Jerome and the crucifix. Everything from the ground up, including the post and the drapery, leads to this connection. Its details combine to create a sense of love and devotion that we can believe and feel; note St. Jerome’s euphoric expression, his hair wrapping around the crucifix, the heads pressing into and leaning on each other as if peacefully sleeping, and St. Jerome delicately holding the cross as if playing a violin.

One of the most striking things I felt seeing this piece was how prophetic it is. Bernini’s St. Jerome tells us that human beings can love God, be in balance with ourselves, and cultivate a capacity to live harmoniously with all other living beings on earth. Incredible beauty, accomplished by a unity of concept and form, created by a Baroque master.

This article appeared in the Fall 2001 print issue of LINEA. Dana Parlier[1] is a technical instructor at the Art Students League.

  1. Dana Parlier: