These two valuable paintings once constituted the side compartments of a triptych that was dismembered and whose central element was lost. The veiled woman, who wears an anachronistically dark dress and cloak recalling the dress of the Poor Clares, is the noble Roman matron Paola (347 – 406). She belonged to the Roman gens Cornelia and at age 15 she had married Senator Tossozio, with whom she had five children. When her husband died in 379, she retired to the Aventine Hill in Rome together with other widows to devote herself to prayer and penance. At that time, St. Jerome came to Rome and the widows hosted him nearby. Under the guidance of the Saint, who was engaged in the Latin translation of the Bible from ancient versions in Greek and Hebrew, Paola and her daughter Eustochium devoted themselves to the study of the Holy Scriptures. When St. Jerome went back to the East, they followed him. After an initial stay in Antioch, the two women visited the sacred places in Palestine, then, going to Egypt, they became interested in the life of the hermits. Finally, they settled in Bethlehem where Paola founded two monasteries and remained until her death.
The Vatican portrait of Eustochium shows her dressed according to the fashion of the time, with a elaborately embroidered white dress decorated with a motif of birds amongst intertwined plants. St. Jerome dedicated the 22nd Epistle and its eulogy on virginity to this young woman who had followed her mother on the pilgrimage. She, in fact, displays a scroll with the inscription: “AUDI, FILIA, AND (T) VIDE (ET) INCLINATES AUREM TUA (M) AND OBLIV (I) SCERE POPULU (M) TUUM (ET) DOMUM PATRIS TUI (ET) CO (N) CUPISCET REX DECORE (M) TUU (M) [Listen, daughter, look, give ear: forget your people and your father’s house; the king is in love with your beauty]. It is Psalm 44 (vv. 11-12), with which Jerome begins the 22nd Epistle.
One can hypothesize that in the central panel there was a Madonna with Child surrounded by Saints, among which St. Jerome was certainly represented.
The name of the elegant painter to whom we owe these paintings is unknown. He was commonly called the Master of the Straus Madonna after his Madonna with Child (1395 ca.), once part of the Straus Collection of New York, now in the Fine Arts Museum of Houston in Texas. This work provides a nucleus around which art historians have gathered a core of works attributed to his hand.
The artistic patrimony of the painter took place in Florence between 1385 and 1415, where he was probably trained in the circle of Agnolo Gaddi. Shared ornamental elements are found in his repertoire and in that of Lorenzo Monaco, although the personalities of the two artists are very different. On the contrary, the Master of the Straus Madonna is similar to that of Spinello Aretino, making him one of the most up-to-date protagonists of the Florentine late Gothic culture. These Vatican panels show us two images of ideal women with clear contours that stand out on the gold background, the flesh painted in a delicate and suffused chiaroscuro, and the clothing that characterizes the widow and her elegant daughter covered with elaborate decorative motifs and folds.The reference to the Epistle of
St. Jerome shows attention to patristic sources and brings to the world of Christian spirituality a princess who seems part of a fairy tale.