Saint Jerome Writing by Caravaggio shows the Catholic priest of the Church translating the bible from Greek to Latin. This version of Caravaggio’s Saint Jerome Writing is in the Galleria Borghese in Rome, Italy.
Analysis of Saint Jerome Writing
The skull rests on the desk as a memento mori or reminder of death and the promised life to come. In this context, Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio is brave in his 1606 work and maybe subversive to clothe Jerome in a bright red robe that could show a delight in the present life. Alternatively, the red could symbolize the sacrifice of Christ.
Saint Jerome Writing is Caravaggio’s portrayal, through traditional iconography, of a Doctor of the Catholic Church, and later saint, known for his influential translation of the Bible.
In customary fashion, Caravaggio shows Jerome poring over his books in what is likely his study. While with the left he lifts up one half of a hefty tome, his right hand is holding a pen — his right arm extended — away from the page. As well as preparing himself to take a note, he is keeping the dripping quill from marking the paper.
Jerome is an elderly, bearded, and emaciated figure draped in a scarlet robe suggestive of his pious zeal — all recurrent attributes of his in Christian iconography.
The unilluminated halo over his pate alludes to his yet-to-be-recognised sanctity. Another tome to the left props up a third, open book on top of which sits a human skull, a symbol of the momento mori trope of Christian art.
It warns that all worldly things are ephemeral, that death is imminent, and that, by religious implication, one ought to be preparing for Judgement Day.
Caravaggio’s Jerome is seen in a three-quarter profile on the right. His broad, bald head inclines forward while turning toward our left. This is symmetrically, and symbolically, in opposition to the skull on the other side of the space. Jerome’s cranium, the receptacle of his extraordinary intellect, and Jerome himself by extension are thus equated to everyman’s lifeless bone.
The intellectual saint is also so arranged — with his outthrust hand and inward movement — as to appear at one with the equally lifeless wood and paper at centre stage.
It should be noted that the colours elected by Caravaggio also contribute to the impression of Jerome’s sameness with the objects beside him.
Despite the scarlet of the robe and the white of the paper, the predominant hue is brown. Caravaggio’s ploy of a pitch-black environment helps to accentuate, by means of light, precisely selected areas: Jerome’s head and bust, his robe, the paper, the white towel, the skull. By design, the skull on the left appears sallow: just like Jerome’s own.
Representations of Saint Jerome enjoyed particular significance in Caravaggio’s age, which is that of the Counter-Reformation. Jerome is credited with a translation of the Bible from Hebrew into Latin the majority of which became part of the so-called Vulgate. Through him, Catholics could be encouraged to revere Latin as the only proper language for liturgy.
To some critics, it is intuitively obvious that one of the books besides Jerome is his translation of the Bible.
According to Gian Pietro Bellori, the painting was commissioned by the eminent art collector Cardinal Scipione Borghese. It would have occurred during Caravaggio’s last period in Rome prior to his flight to Malta.
The painting is also known as Saint Jerome in His Study, though the title above corresponds to the Italian naming: San Girolamo scrivente. There exists another version, also commonly known as Saint Jerome Writing, which treats the same subject with identical symbology. The saint, however, appears to be sitting on a bed.
For the sake of clarity, the painting with Jerome in the study is marked for being in Rome, at the Galleria Borghese. The second version is marked for being in a cathedral in La Valletta, Malta.
Saint Jerome in the bible
Saint Jerome is a significant figure in Christianity, particularly for his role in translating the Bible into Latin, known as the Vulgate. He was born in the city of Stridon in modern-day Croatia in the fourth century and grew up in a Christian family. He received a classical education in Rome and became a skilled linguist, fluent in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin.
Jerome’s most notable work was his translation of the Bible into Latin, which he began in the late fourth century and completed in the early fifth century. His translation became the standard version of the Bible in the Western Christian Church and was widely used for over a thousand years.
In addition to his translation work, Jerome was also a theologian and a prolific writer. He wrote extensively on Christian doctrine, morality, and spirituality, and his writings were influential in shaping Christian thought during the late Roman Empire and the early Middle Ages.
Jerome is also known for his devotion to Saint Paula, a wealthy Roman woman who became his patron and helped to fund his work. The two developed a close relationship, and Jerome dedicated several of his writings to her.
Saint Jerome is often depicted in Christian art as a scholar or monk, with a book or quill in hand. He is also associated with the image of the lion, which according to legend, he befriended and tamed during his time living as a hermit in the wilderness.
Jerome’s influence on Christianity cannot be overstated. His translation of the Bible into Latin helped to standardize the text and make it accessible to a wider audience, while his writings on theology and spirituality continue to inspire Christians around the world.
Today, Saint Jerome is remembered as one of the most important figures in Christian history, and his translation of the Bible remains a cornerstone of the Western Christian tradition. His feast day is celebrated on September 30th.
Caravaggio and his religious paintings
Caravaggio, born Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio in 1571 in Milan, Italy, was a painter who is widely regarded as one of the most important figures in the history of Western art. He is known for his dramatic use of light and shadow, his naturalistic style, and his controversial subject matter.
Caravaggio’s religious paintings are among his most famous works. He was a devout Catholic, and his faith is evident in many of his paintings, which often depict scenes from the Bible.
One of Caravaggio’s most famous religious paintings is “The Conversion of Saint Paul,” which depicts the moment when Saint Paul was struck blind by a vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus. The painting is notable for its dramatic use of light and shadow, which emphasizes the contrast between darkness and illumination.
Another of Caravaggio’s religious paintings is “The Calling of Saint Matthew,” which depicts the moment when Jesus called Matthew, a tax collector, to become one of his disciples. The painting is notable for its realistic portrayal of the figures and its use of light to draw attention to the moment of the calling.
Caravaggio’s “The Crucifixion of Saint Peter” is also notable for its dramatic use of light and shadow. The painting depicts the moment when Saint Peter was crucified upside down, as he had requested, in Rome. The painting is notable for its dramatic composition, with the figure of Saint Peter dominating the scene and the use of light to emphasize the emotional intensity of the moment.
Another famous religious painting by Caravaggio is “The Supper at Emmaus,” which depicts the moment when Jesus revealed himself to two of his disciples after his resurrection. The painting is notable for its naturalistic depiction of the figures and its use of light to draw attention to the moment of revelation.
Caravaggio’s religious paintings were controversial in his time because of their naturalistic style and their portrayal of religious figures as ordinary people. He often used ordinary people, including street urchins and prostitutes, as models for his religious figures, which was considered scandalous by some. Despite this, his paintings were highly influential and had a profound impact on the development of Western art.
Today, Caravaggio’s religious paintings are recognized as some of the most important works of art in the Western tradition. His use of light and shadow, his naturalistic style, and his willingness to portray religious figures as ordinary people have made his paintings enduringly popular and influential.