One of the Christmas gifts which I most appreciate every year is a diary from the National Gallery, donated by family members who understand that, as senility advances, I really do need to write down what (if anything) I have done every day, so that I have evidence when memory fails, as it increasingly does.
For example, 24 February is Estonia’s national day, and I decided to mark it on Twitter with a rendition of the wonderful national anthem, ‘Mu isamaa’. Lo, the best version I could find online was from the song festival (Laulupidu) of 2019, which we attended! So I went and got the 2019 diary, and flicking through the pages, discovered that we were in the arena, near the front, on Saturday 6 July, walking back to the centre of Tallinn afterwards in daylight at 11.30 p.m.
Further flicking reminded me that 2019 was indeed an annus mirabilis in terms of foreign travel (especially considering what came after): Rome, Venice, Amsterdam, Leiden, Tallinn, Brugge, Venice, Ravenna … to say nothing of the trips to London, both for family affairs and museums, galleries and gardens. Seems like a different world.
But to get to the point, the picture opposite a recent diary page is St Jerome in his Study, by Antonello da Messina, painted (probably) in Venice around 1475 in oil on lime-wood, and purchased by the Gallery in 1894. And, apparently by chance (?), I have been coming across further images of the saint: Dürer’s St Jerome in the Desert will be part of Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist in the National Gallery in November (please let it happen!); and a catalogue from European auction house which I’ve just opened at work is offering a St Jerome by van Dyck – ‘estimate on application’, which, given that the Titian on the front cover is estimated at €1,200,000, I probably don’t need to bother with.
In my (ignorant) experience, there are two sorts of St Jerome: in the desert, or in his study. In both contexts, some motifs may appear: his (completely anachronistic) cardinal’s vesture and hat, a book and/or writing materials, a skull, and of course his friend the lion. (In the desert, he often has a small rock in his hand for self-chastisement, but I don’t think I’ve seen this in his study.)
I knew nothing at all about St Jerome’s life except the almost certainly untrue bits (the lion, for example), his being one of the four Doctors of the Church, and of course the Vulgate. Reading around in my usual superficial way, I discover that his name was Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus, and that he was born about 342 in Stridon, a town in Dalmatia which can no longer be certainly identified. It is not clear whether (late) Latin or Illyrian was his native language. Nor is it certain at what point he learned Greek. Most startling of all is that he was not originally a Christian – he converted in the 360s, after spending some years in Rome as a student of rhetoric and theology (and apparently indulging in traditional student excesses, of which he was later ashamed).
Still studying, he spent time in Trier and Aquileia, before travelling about 373 through northern Greece and Anatolia to Syria, where, while ill in Antioch, he had a vision which told him to abandon his studies of the pagan authors and devote himself to the Bible. He seems to have taken up an eremitic life in the Syrian desert, but was not completely isolated – he learned Hebrew from another hermit, for example.
Returning to Antioch, he was ordained – though he wanted to continue his scholarly lifestyle rather than to minister – and then travelled to Constantinople to study under Gregory of Nazianzus; but, invited to a synod at Rome, he impressed Pope Damasus, and became his secretary.
Jerome was forced from Rome, after Damasus’s death, by a scandal involving a rich widow and her daughters, whose spiritual advisor he had become, and returned to Antioch, whence he and some companions (including the said widow) made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. He then went to Alexandria to study, but returned to Bethlehem in 388, and lived for some time in a cave believed to have been the site of the Nativity.
During this whole period, and supported by his friends, he continued his works of translation, and polemics against those he regarded as heretics and apostates, until his death on 30 September 420. He was buried near Bethlehem, but his bones were later translated to Sta Maria Maggiore in Rome – though (as is so common in these cases) both the Escorial in Spain and the cathedral of Nepi, near Viterbo in Italy, claim to hold his head. A bit of him was sold online not long ago, and there is another (‘first-class’) bit available, with ‘price upon request’. (Interestingly, St Jerome said this about relics: ‘We do not worship, we do not adore, for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the Creator, but we venerate the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore Him whose martyrs they are.’)
But of course the most important thing about Jerome is not his life, but his work (and I do realise that it isn’t all him!), which, from ‘In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram’ via ‘In principio erat Verbum et Verbum erat apud Deum et Deus erat Verbum’ to ‘Gratia Domini nostri Iesu Christi cum omnibus. Amen’, was for more than a thousand years, and for good or ill, the common and unifying background of the Christian faith.
It is not therefore surprising that Jerome, whether as scholar or hermit, has been one of the most popular subjects of saintly ‘portraiture’ – especially during the Renaissance, when the revival of classical learning and the controversy over the use of the vernacular in the church combined to put him centre stage. Below are just a few more examples.