Saint Jerome (347-420) is a favourite subject of Christian art and a fascinating character in his own right. He produced the standard Latin version of the Bible known as Vulgata, a controversial text that includes excerpts he translated as well as edited versions of pre-existing translations. He was a classicist, mostly self-taught, and not necessarily an excellent writer nor an unbiased one - we know the Vulgata to be basically a political tool for the diffusion of one official version of the truth. We can say that his literary work makes him one of the most important political figures in the early Church and yet he was also a hermit. His long stay east of Antioch was both a moment of personal growth, as well as an occasion to improve his knowledge of Hebrew and Aramaic (useful for his less-than-ascetic writing career). He then went back to Rome, and lived a few decades the life of a scholar, producing an impressive (at least quantitatively) body of work. Interestingly, he started his Vulgata work when his grasp of languages outside of Greek was less than perfect, and yet he's chiefly known as translator; he is also known as a hermit, although his ascetic phase only took a few years in what otherwise was a very long and very cosmopolitan life. The fact that he is such a complex character makes him an ideal subject for representation. You get St Jerome in a study, clothed like a prince of the Church (Durer, Antonello), but also St Jerome as a John-the-Baptist savage in the wilderness (de Ribera). You can paint him on a strong architectural background indulging in classical details, or surround him with lush vegetation, or with a stark desert background. What's more, he is said to have healed the paw of a lion that became his pet, so the lion is also in the picture.
Here we have two prints produced in the workshop of the saint's namesake Hieronymus Cock (1518-70), a pioneer of printmaking based in Antwerp. Cock is very interesting as he was not only an artist in his own right (see below) but also an entrepreneur who contributed to the commercial revolution in printmaking around the mid-1500s. Above you can see van Doetechum's version of Saint Jerome, printed by Cock. Cock was fundamentally a publisher of art portfolio, a lost tradition that we have half a mind to bring back with Black Square in the future. The image above is just a detail of a larger composition that was titled, as it is visible, "Jerome in the Desert". And yet, Jerome's nice solid desk and writing instruments are placed in a clearly defined architectural space, at a right angle with a set of steps and platforms. As it is conventional, next to him lies a cardinal's hat, a symbol of Jerome's high position in the echelons of the Curia which however makes no sense as cardinals did not even exist back then. And the lion is there. Want to see the desert around Jerome?
Right. Not a desert after all. Rather, a prosperous village with houses and yards and a cloister and a church and even a windmill in the distance - a kind of mixture of Flemish architecture with an Italianate landscape and a couple of camels thrown in as a nod to the Holy Land. But the beauty of the story of St Jerome is that there is nothing strange in this pastiche as his whole life was in fact a colourful and hardly consistent mixture of different places and different roles (anachorite? propaganda agent? poet? hermit? scholar? politician?).
Often Jerome becomes just the excuse to picture a landscape in an era, the 1500s, when landscape painting and etching still did not have the same dignity as religious, historical, or even literary depictions. Hieronymus (Cock) himself used this subject; in his case, Jerome and the lion are protected by thick bushes that form a canopy above ancient ruins.
The language of this print is quite different, it works much more on the shadows and on complex detailing rather than on the cleaner lines of the Doetechum version. Moreover, while the other print took a contemporary landscape as its main subject, here Cock indulges in a capriccio of ancient ruins.
This is it for today; we will come back both to Hieronymus Cock's career as a printmaker, and to St Jerome as a leitmotiv. On Tuesday we'll be in Rome with Diploma 14 and one of the places we'll visit is the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore where St Jerome is buried following the official version, which we very much like to support because it's a beautiful church and it just fits such an interesting character to be buried in a church that is also a palace, that has a back façade which is better than its front, which is very old (as in, contemporary to St Jerome) and yet has been completed a scant two centuries ago.