St Jerome

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.

Antonello da Messina, Saint Jerome in his Study, c. 1475. In his well-appointed study, the saint has kicked his slippers off before mounting to his desk. In the doorway, the red-legged partridge, willing to give his life to decoy predators away from his nest, represents Jesus, and the peacock the immortal soul. The lion appears to be returning from a stroll. (This one reminds me of Carpaccio’s St Augustine in his Study in the Scuola di San Giorgio dei Schiavoni in Venice.) (Credit: the National Gallery)

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.)

St Jerome compares texts in this woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle, a history of the world by Hartmann Schedel, published in 1493. I love the lion’s claws outside the frame, and also his resigned expression.

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).

Giovanni Battista Langetti (1625–76), The Vision of St Jerome, c. 1660 – a spectacular awakening!
(Credit: the Cleveland Museum of Art)

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.

Bernadino Pinturicchio (1454–1513), St Jerome in the Desert, with a stone to beat his chest with, and another resigned-looking lion. (Credit: the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore)

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.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610), St Jerome Writing. (Credit: the Galleria Borghese, Rome)

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.

Domenico Ghirlandaio (1448–94), St Jerome in his Study. Note the equipment, including spectacles and a pair of scissors, hooked to the side of his desk, and the beautiful carpet used as a tablecloth.
(Credit: Chiesa di Ognissanti, Florence)

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.’)

Pieter Coecke van Aelst (1502–55) (and workshop), St Jerome in his Study, c. 1530. The weary saint, surrounded by books (including Greek and Hebrew Bibles, St Matthew’s Gospel and St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans), and his working equipment, including his spectacles and a quill with a knife to sharpen it, points to a skull. His message is enforced by the plaque on the wall: ‘Cogita mori’, ‘Think on your death’, and the emblems of mortality, the burnt-down candle and the hour-glass.
(Credit: the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore)

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.

The first page of Genesis, from the eighth-century Codex Amiatinus, commissioned by Ceolfrid (642‒716), abbot of Wearmouth and Jarrow (and teacher of Bede), who had intended to present it to Pope Pope Gregory II. He died in Burgundy, on his way to Rome with the manuscript, in 716. (Credit: Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence)

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.


El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos: 1541– 1614), St Jerome in Penitence. (Credit: National Galleries of Scotland)
El Greco, St Jerome as Cardinal. (Credit: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
Niccolò Antonio Colantonio (c. 1420–60), St Jerome in his Study. The saint eases the thorn from the lion’s paw in a very untidy room. (I like the seat, which resembles the throne of Maximian in Ravenna.) (Credit: Museo di Capodimonte, Naples)
Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), St Jerome in his Study, with a dog as well as the lion, and comfy cushions. (Credit: the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Giovanni Bellini (c. 1430–1516), St Jerome reading in a Landscape. None of the familiar symbols, just the lion keeping watch. (Credit: the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)
A maiolica bowl from the workshop of Maestro Giorgio Andreoli, Gubbio, Italy (c. 1525–50), showing St Jerome in the Wilderness, with a very small lion. (Credit: the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)
This entry was posted in Art, Biography, Cambridge, History, Italy, London, Museums and Galleries, Printing and Publishing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to St Jerome

  1. and thank you for introducing me to the Estonian National Anthem!


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