Oil on canvas, 1640, by Jusepe de Ribera (1591 – 1652)
Saint Jerome in the Desert with Saints John the Baptist and Ansanus
Tempera on panel, 1455, by Filippo Lippi (1406 – 1469)
Saint Jerome in His Study
Oil on panel, 1521, by Joos van Cleve (1490 – 1540)
Saint Jerome in His Study
Tempera and oil on panel, 1482, by Matteo di Giovanni (1428 – 1495)
Here and there the light, not entering in through windows, but filtering down from above through shafts, relieved the horror of the darkness – Jerome, Commentarius in Ezzechielem, c. 40, v. 5
Saint Jerome is in modern lexicology associated with scholars, archivists, librarians and translators. We may regard him with reverence given his life of scholarly dedication but as the above quotation and these four depictions of him attest, there was a darker and more cynical side to him. Consequently, artists have variously viewed this figure with a far larger degree of complexity and his devotion to the principles of ascetic penance – foregoing all earthly pleasures, self-abusing and casting himself for long periods into the barren wastes of the desert – seems to have triggered a less than sympathetic disconnect with the artistic perspective from which he is portrayed. There is, contemporaneously, something of the ‘killjoy’ personality captured in three of these four depictions married with the aghast gaze of someone who has succumbed to a life of puritanical fanaticism but seems to be simultaneously trapped in the very obsession he has invested in. Jerome was a scholar and writer first and foremost which we associate with intellectual broad-mindedness and yet he was bodily a prisoner to his staunch beliefs. The fact that both Ribera and Lippi include the presence of a rock he clasps in his right hand with which to violently beat his chest and inflict self-abuse against impure thoughts while showing him with a forlorn and melancholic expression suggest the artists wryly ‘had it in’ for their subject more than being merely faithful to his religious iconography.
de Ribera's Saint Jerome, 1640
All four artists capture Jerome as a figure whose physical status shows signs of advanced age and decline. While age is synonymous with the wisdom accrued by the scholar, the deprivations of corporeal health are well-marked. This is especially apparent in de Ribera’s Saint Jerome where the harsh realism accentuates the saint’s role in exercising the sacrament of penance. Jerome’s flesh across his chest is sallow and the skin about his exposed right breast sags but this is in sharp contrast to the muscular pronouncement of his right forearm which is well-toned from the repeated violations he commits against himself. Indeed, his left breast hidden under his anachronistic cardinal’s robes looks comparatively indented from years of abuse. All of this is framed by the chiaroscuro effect which sharpens his sense of fragility and is accentuated by the crisp lines of his books. The skull he cradles is illuminated like an orb and presages mortality while he gazes directly but puzzlingly at the light source as if searching for a sign that his sacrifices are not woefully in vain.
Lippi's Saint Jerome in the Desert with Saints John the Baptist and Ansanus, 1455
Lippi’s Saint Jerome in the Desert with the Saints John the Baptist and Ansanus goes a step further to reference the stone actually against his breast from which blood is pouring. The injury is recent but instead of grimacing in pain and spiritual ecstasy, Jerome is instead looking bewildered and emotionally inert. If there is no pain or visible sign of catharsis which accompanies the act of penance then what is the point? Likewise, while de Ribera’s Jerome’s gaze is cast skywards in search of the spiritual absolution his act apparently brings to him, Lippi’s saint is staring at the ground completely unaffected by the significance of the ritual. As such he appears to present the figure of a dismal addict who no longer attains a thrill from his fix but is nonetheless held in its brutal sway. The sweeping brace of hard, angular rocks in the background heighten the sense of severity which the weapon of self-abuse attains while the darkened clouds add additional notes of conflict and pathos. Jerome’s simple white robes are contrasted to the more animate and textured clothing of both Saint John and Ansanus which again codify the eschewing of earthly pleasure in favour of spiritual enlightenment. If this is the case, it is also arguably a contextualisation of comparative saintliness – the ascetic doctrine critiqued against the worldlier more dramatic fates of John (beheading) and Ansanus (martyrdom).
van Cleve's Saint Jerome in His Study, 1521
Van Cleve and di Giovanni’s Saint Jerome in His Study accordingly focus on the literary achievements of Jerome. Here there is no immediate reference to the association of the penance but rather the tortured look of a creative mind beset by the struggles and labours of scholarship. Van Cleve’s version is explicitly in the fashion of a memento mori and is littered with overt symbols of death. The snuffed out candle and finely rendered skull cast a cold gleam while the paper quotation on the back wall reads Respice Finem or ‘consider the end.’ The crucifix in the crevice casts an ethereal shadow which is reflected in the look on Jerome’s deeply contemplative face. All around him sit emblems of domesticity in the form of the kettle and the decanter and the pair of scissors and yet Jerome seems to be, like the bird trapped in its cage, startlingly disassociated from it all as if he were oblivious to the tempo and routine of temporal life and instead focused on a deeper quest for intellectual insight which almost seems to suspend him in time. This vanitas motif centres Jerome as an icon who reflects on the meaninglessness of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits.
de Giovanni's Saint Jerome in His Study, 1482
Meanwhile, di Giovanni presents the saint as much more upright and physically aware of his environ, in the poise of a clerk or a scribe in a guild of some order (indeed the painting was commissioned by the Arte dei Notai or notaries guild in Siena) and he is surrounded by the comforts and instruments of a scholar. Just like the other notaries in a guild, there is a sense of urgency about his activity instead of the deep contemplation to be found in the other three depictions. At Jerome’s feet is the miniature of the lion whose paw he supposedly healed in a cave in the desert and this is the only reference di Giovanni makes to Jerome’s saintly associations, except for the presence of an hourglass which serves not only as a symbol in this case for prudence, conscientiousness and efficiency, but also links subtly to the memento mori motif we see in other versions of his hagiography. Outside the window there is light and blue sky which is another sign that di Giovanni chose to focus on a more optimistic presentation of Jerome’s life (and life in general) than other artists did. Here, at last, he is not the dour downcast stoic but someone seemingly invigorated and enlivened by his life’s calling.
Images courtesy of the Fogg Museum, Harvard University.