Saint Jerome in His Study (1475),
Antonello da Messina (1430-1479),
National Callery, London, England.
THIS PAINTING OF SAINT JEROME by Antonello da Messina is a picture puzzle waiting to be decoded. The objects and creatures represented are placed in particular positions that are both meaningful and didactic. Veiled religious mysteries lurk here. They invite the viewer to discover them by penetrating their symbols.
At the centre of the picture is a study carrel bathed in light. There sits Saint Jerome reading and reflecting. It is to this great Father of the Church that we owe the translation of the Bible into Latin, the common language (Vulgate) of the fourth century. He wears the red robes of a cardinal, an honour given to him posthumously because he exercised many functions for the pope in his day that cardinals in later centuries performed. Jerome's personality was cantankerous and he did not shy away from speaking his mind. The decadent clergy of Rome could not abide him, but women flocked to him seeking spiritual instruction, some even dedicating themselves to a life of chastity and monastic discipline. It was to one of these female disciples that Jerome addressed his twentysecond Epistle, the source of inspiration, some think, for this painting. In that letter Jerome extols the virtues of virginity, withdrawal from the world and all its allurements, and points to the Blessed Virgin Mary as a model of perfection. On either side of the seated saint are windows opening up to a landscape. That on the left shows a distant city with people engaged in various activities. That on the right shows only the unpopulated countryside. The windows above Jerome and above the quiet landscape on the right show birds in flight There are no birds on the left flying over the city. Since antiquity, flying birds have symbolised the elevated soul, and this is the key to interpreting the scene: for his female disciple to reach perfection, she must withdraw from the distractions of the city and instead seek solitude in the more contemplative countryside. Jerome himself had spent many years as a penitent and a solitary in the deserts of the Middle East, so he spoke with authority. In 385 he left Rome and traveled through Egypt and the Holy Land, finally settling in Bethlehem where he lived in a cave and established a monastery within sight of Emperor Constantine's Basilica of the Nativity.
If this whole painting is a veiled representation of Jerome's spiritual admonitions, then interpretations can be drawn from its various geometric sectors. Vertically the painting is tripartite with left, middle, and right sectors. Likewise, it is horizontally divided into top, middle, and bottom. As found in ancient tradition, the right side contains all good things while the left side tsinistra in Latin, from which we get the word "sinister") features the bad. The left side of the middle ground is shrouded in darkness. But we can see in those shadows an unlit lamp, a hanging soiled cloth, and beneath it a crouching cat. The soiled cloth is a symbol of impurity, and this is fortified by the cat which was viewed in the Middle Ages as a promiscuous animal associated with witches and the devil. Just as a cat was known to wait patiently and pounce upon its prey, so likewise did the devil plot to capture souls. The unlit lamp is a direct reference to the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins found in the Gospel of Matthew. Jerome's disciple must have her spiritual lamp lit, ever ready for the arrival of Christ, her bridegroom. Furthermore, she must be constant in her dedication and protect her virginity for in that state she can experience a foretaste of heaven. Marian symbolism is subtly introduced here, for the potted plants at Jerome's feet invoke in miniature the walled garden thortus cone/usus), a common iconographic reference to the virginity of the Blessed Mother. Furthermore, on the shelves above Jerome in the middle section of the painting are two oval pyxes, containers for hosts, and a carafe of clear water, a reference to Mary's womb where her divine Son was formed while at the same time her virginity was miraculously maintained.
On the right of Jerome is a corridor of illuminated arches. There a lion stands guard. This is a reference to the legend that Jerome healed and befriended a lion with a thorn stuck in its paw, and thereafter made him a sentry for his monastery. The lion is a symbol of courage, but it may also represent the ferociousness of Jerome's own firebrand faith.
A partridge, a peacock, and a silver water bowl cryptically decorate the bottom foreground of the painting. The partridge was a bird considered promiscuous, like the cat, and a thief besides, condemned even in the Old Testament (Jr 17: 11). Known for stealing eggs and raising chicks not her own, this bird became a symbol of the devil stealing God's children. The partridge and the peacock have their backs to each other. While the gorgeous plumage of the peacock could often be associated with vanity, a glance at his ugly feet kept him humble. It was thought that the flesh of peacocks was incorruptible, and so the bird became a symbol of eternal life. In early Christian symbolism two peacocks were often depicted drinking from the fountain of life: hence the meaning of the water bowl placed before it. These figurations representing a choice between damnation and eternal life are placed on the sill of the framing stone portal, a porta caeli, which is another Marian title meaning "gate of heaven". As a model and guide, the Virgin leads us to her Son. And so she inspired Jerome whose shoes have been noticeably left at the bottom of the stairs of his elevated study. For in the reading and contemplation of Scripture the saint has indeed tread upon holy ground and climbed the sacred mountain, gaining wisdom and understanding from which he can earnestly instruct others .
• Father Michael Morris, O.P.
Professor, Dominican School of Philosophy & Theology, Berkeley, CA, U.S.A.
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