In The Penitent St. Jerome, from around the 1480s, Florence painter Jacopo del Sellaio renders his sickly green saint with verisimilitude, but Jerome occupies an oddly stylized cave filled with a skull, a small lion, and a little crucified Christ, all of which combine to hallucinatory effect.

Compare it to a Netherlandish panel painting, dating to about the same decade, which recounts the morality fable of The Brother of the King Threatened with Death. A creaky old king exits a castle to see archers aiming their crossbows at his calm brother, whom he's sentenced to sit over a fire, under a dangling sword, as an admonishment against relishing earthly pleasures in the face of death. (The king then let his brother go.) The spaces are cockeyed and the people elaborate but doll-like, which drives home its Grimm's fairy tale air.

It's amusing to take in this warning about gluttony in this Newport vacation palace. Vanderbilt closed the joint in 1925, after she divorced William K. Vanderbilt, grandson of the railroad tycoon, and her second husband, Oliver H.P. Belmont, had died. John Ringling, of "The Greatest Show on Earth" fame, bought much of the collection in 1927 for his winter residence and museum in Sarasota, Florida. Welcome back, if only for a summer holiday.

Read Greg Cook's blog at gregcookland.com/journal.

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