Painted in 1503, when Raphael was only twenty years old, this work could easily be mistaken for one by Raphael’s master, Perugino. The painting, however, is signed and dated at the foot of the Cross, so the provenance is certain. It was made as an altarpiece for a side chapel dedicated to St. Jerome in the Church of San Domanico, Citta di Castello, in Tuscany. The stone frame for the painting is still in place. Below it, the Predella comprised three paintings of episodes in the life of St. Jerome, but these have also been removed, though two survived.
Raphael depicts the moment of Christ’s death on the Cross. Two angels with communion chalices collect the blood gushing from the wounds in the Saviour’s hands and side. Beneath the Cross the Virgin and St John are shown standing, while the two penitents, St. Jerome and St. Mary Magdalene, are kneeling.
St. Jerome carries a stone in his right hand with which to beat his bare breast in mortification. The Cross and the human figures are set on bare earth, but further back there is life-giving water, and vegetation covers the ground, ground which merges gently with the heavenly horizon. Above the Cross, the sun and a darkened moon attest to the cosmic significance of the event being enacted below.
This is a richly symbolic painting, the central theme of which is the Eucharist. Notice first the Cross on which the Saviour hangs. This extends from top to bottom of the painting and signifies that only through the Cross may earth and heaven be reunited.