September 27, 2016

Albrecht and Jerome

        September 30 is St Jerome’s Day, in honor of which I have several of Albrecht Dürer’s depictions of him.  I don’t think Jerome and I would have been best buddies back in the day (347-420 CE), but he is the patron saint of librarians and translators and is said to be the Church’s first linguist, so I’ve got to cheer that.  He’s also famous for befriending a lion by removing a thorn from its paw a lá Androcles, so points for kindness to animals.  At any rate, Albrecht Dürer (Germany, 1471-1528), most famous of renaissance printmakers, illustrated the life of Saint Jerome numerous times - more than he did any other saint (at least, not counting Jesus and Mary, I think).
        We’ll begin with my favorite, which D and I saw at the RISD museum of art this summer, and which got me started on this topic in the first place.  This is a great example of Dürer’s best work.  It has an enticing composition with the curtain drawn aside to invite us into the saint’s private cell.  It has a variety of textures.  It has tons of interesting details, giving us both clues about what would have seemed appropriate for a renaissance’s scholar’s study, and giving us symbolic clues about Jerome’s saintliness.  You can see the inkwell, scissors, brushes, and of course books, while the hourglass reminds us of the passage of time.  I especially like the lion, who looks very sleepy and contented, and may even have been playing with his tail.  One of Jerome’s other traditional symbols is the hat of a cardinal, which in this
case is off his head, hanging on his back.  Historically in Jerome’s time cardinals hadn’t been invented yet, but he was traditionally depicted as a cardinal because he was effectively the secretary of a pope, a role which by the renaissance was generally held by a cardinal.
        Compare now with Dürer’s earliest known book illustration, in which Jerome is in the act of pulling the thorn from the lion’s paw.  Dürer was younger, and so was Jerome - he doesn’t yet have his long beard.  You can tell this is an earlier effort, much simpler and more awkward.  In fact, it looks almost medieval with its not-quite-right perspective and anatomy, and its areas of more-or-less empty space.  Still, though, there’s a wealth of detail, including the unique touch of Jerome’s books in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, for which he was famous.  Note also that he’s dressed in the robes and hat of a cardinal, this time more obviously.
        My third example shows Jerome as the ascetic as much as the scholar, living in a cave with civilization off in the distance.  The lion, unusually, seems to be prowling about instead of resting peacefully by the saint’s feet, and the cardinal accessories are heaped on the rock Jerome's using for a desk.  Jerome’s writing hand looks dreadfully awkward, but I love the framing of the cave with its rocks and plants.
        And finally, another scene back in the study.  This one is a copper engraving and the level of detail is exceptional: the light thrown on the walls by the tiny round glass panes of the windows, the wood grain on the ceiling…  In addition to the hourglass we also have a skull, another traditional symbol of mortality and “vanitas.”  Jerome’s cardinal hat hangs on the wall behind him and for the first time Dürer gives him a halo.  He also gave Jerome a second pet, who looks to me like a corgi.  One other fun detail is the gourd hanging from the foreground ceiling.  Jerome had a famous dispute with Saint Augustine over whether the correct
translation of Jonah’s plant in the Bible was a gourd or, as Jerome claimed, ivy.  The humanists of Dürer’s day were fond of the story of this debate as illustrating Jerome’s profound scholarship.
        As an artist I sometimes think it’s boring to do the same subject multiple times, but Dürer manages to do something a little bit different each time he comes back to Saint Jerome.

[Pictures: St. Jerome in His Cell, wood block print by Albrecht Dürer, 1511 (Image from RISD Museum);
St Jerome, wood block print by Dürer from Liber Epistolarum sancti Hieronymi, 1497 (Image from Southern Methodist University);
Saint Jerome in the Cave, wood block print by Dürer, 1512 (Image from National Galleries Scotland);
Jerome in his Study, copper engraving by Dürer, 1514 (Image from deutsche Fotothek).]

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