Saint Jerome was one of the most popular saints in 16th century Flanders.
He had writen the final Latin version of the bible and he fully understood the implications of the holy writings. For the growing Protestant community representations of this pensive scholar included also hidden criticism on the contemporary Catholic church comunity, that had betrayed its original pastoral duties.
Saint Jerome’s pose goes back to the famous archetype composition painted by Albrecht Dürer in Antwerp in March 1521. That painting is today at the Museu Nacional de Arte Antigua in Lisbon.
About Saint Jerome
Stridon (near present-day Ljubljana) circa 347 – 420 near Bethlehem.
Catholic saint, doctor of the church and one of the four Latin church fathers, with Saint Augustine, Saint Ambrose and Pope Gregory I.
Author of the definitive and officially promulgated Latin version of the Bible of the Roman Catholic Church, the so-called Vulgate, which he translated from the Hebrew and from the Greek. Saint Jerome is one of the most voluminous writers of ancient Latin Christianity, second only to Saint Augustine.
About the iconographic sources used during the 16th century to represent Saint Jerome
Representations of Saint Jerome were extremely popular in Flemish painting during the 16th century: it is thought that some 30% of all paintings of saints of that period depict Saint Jerome.
The two main, but opposite, iconographic sources for these 16th century painters were the Golden Legend and Erasmus.
1. The ‘Legenda aurea’ or Golden Legend was a medieval collection of legendary lives and accounts of miracles of important Christian saints compiled around 1260 by Jacobus de Voragine, the archbishop of Genoa.
Painters inspired by the Golden Legend would represent Saint Jerome as a lonely anchorite in the wilderness during his most intense period of asceticism when, between 375 and 378, he had retired in the Syrian dessert. He is a Roman saint, a praying hermit renouncing temptation in front of a crucifix, often doing penance with a stone. The skull in front of him is a Vanitas symbol, referring to the vanity of earthly life.
Usually the half naked St Jerome is accompanied by a lion. According to the Golden legend one evening as Saint Jerome sat within the gates of his monastery at Bethlehem, a lion entered limping. All the monks ran away, but Saint Jerome went forward to meet him, as if he were a guest. The lion lifted its paw, and Saint Jerome examining it found that the poor animal was wounded by a thorn, which he extracted; he cared for the foot until it was healed. The grateful lion remained with his benefactor ever after.
Everyday the lion would accompany a donkey to fetch wood in the forest. One day the lion fell asleep and the donkey was taken by passing merchants, who used it to lead their caravan of camels. Finally the lion was able to find back the donkey and he forced the camel drivers to the monastery where they asked for forgiveness to St Jerome.
2. The second source of inspiration to represent St Jerome was the Humanist Erasmus (Rotterdam 1466 – 1536 Basel). He had sought to demystify saints, especially Saint Jerome: he wrote a new biography of our saint (based on Jerome’s own letters and publications) and he also wrote two new critical publications of the New Testament: the ‘original’ Greek version and his translation into Latin, for he thought Saint Jerome had not completely correctly translated it. Because St Jerome had translated the bible and thus because of his knowledge of several languages, his erudition and his intelligence St Jerome became the model for 16th century Renaissance Humanists. Towards the middle of the 16th century artists inspired by Erasmus no longer represent St Jerome as a Roman saint, but as a real man, as a Renaissance Humanist scholar in his study, amidst a multitude of objects.
One element from the Golden Legend that Erasmus had proved to be erroneous did survive in Humanist representations: the cardinal’s red tunica and red galero (a cardinal’s hat used for travelling). Cardinals were indeed not known until three centuries later than Jerome’s time. Because the other three Church Fathers held high positions in the Church (Augustine and Ambrose were bishops, Gregory a pope) and were represented in ecclesiastical costumes, and as Saint Jerome held a dignified office in Rome between 383 and 385 as secretary and counselor of Pope Damasus I, it had seem fitting to continue to picture him as a cardinal.
About our painting
Our painter has represented the cardinal St Jerome in his study, while he is reflecting upon the faith of man, upon the transitoriness of life and of early goods. The skull represents the seat of thought, and it also symbolizes spiritual perfection. Death of the physical body (symbolized by the skull) enabled one to be reborn at a higher level at which the spirit could rule.
Saint Jerome’s contemplative pose goes evidently back to the Dürer painting from the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon: his right hand rests against is head, the index of the left hand touches the skull.
The saint is the archetypal scholar. In 1972 in his “Early Netherlandish Painting” Max Friendländer explained this as follows: “On the eve of the struggles of the Reformation, the learned, brooding searcher after God represented an appropriate ideal”.
The open bible, the inkwell and the pen refer to his translation of the bible. The open bible indicates that Jerome, known for his knowledge and wisdom, could understand the mysteries of the universe.
Next tot the skull are St Jerome’s reading glasses. The spectacles, designed to refine and sharpen the power of the eyes, signified the role Jerome played for the Church: through his work, the word of God was clarified and refined into a truer form. Eyeglasses seem to have been invented in Italy during the late 13th century. Following the invention of the printing press (middle 15th century) and the availability of books, newspapers and engravings to the ‘common’ man, its use became widespread. These early spectacles did not have sides yet. Therefore they were not easy to keep in place. While reading one had to hold his head back or simply hold them in place with one hand. The best lenses were produced in Italy (Florence), the best frames in Germany (Nuremberg en Regensburg).
About Albrecht Dürer
The famous German Renaissance painter and engraver Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528) made two representations of Saint Jerome, which had a huge impact on Western art. New are the addition of the skull and the half-figure representation of the saint. They are like icons, forming the base, the starting point from which an important number of 16th century German, Flemish and Dutch painters made a huge number of variations.
- First in 1514 Dürer made a copper engraving showing Saint Jerome in the back of his study.
- Then in March 1521, during his successful journey of eleven months in the Low Countries, he painted in Antwerp a small panel zoomed in on an old, tired, but still vigorous and melancholic Saint Jerome. He presented this painting to a Portuguese business agent that he had befriended, Rodrigo Fernandez d’Almada. On the preparatory drawing that served as the basis for the painting Dürer wrote that he had portrayed a 93 years old inhabitant from Antwerp, who was still healthy and strong. The painting is today at the Museu Nacional de Arte Antigua in Lisbon.
The popularity in Antwerp and in Flanders during the second and the third quarter of the 16th century of representations of Saint Jerome is of course explained as the result of a growing criticism on the Catholic church and its leaders and an increasing popularity of the Protestant Reformation. This way people saw Saint Jerome not only wondering about the inevitability of death and the nearness of the Last Judgment, but also as a troubled figure agitated by the existence of religious leaders who do not practice what they preach.
Why should you buy this painting?
Because it is like an icon of Renaissance and of Humanism in Flemish art.
Because this incredibly detailed painting holds a deep philosophical Vanitas message.