Saint Jerome Writing by Caravaggio shows the Catholic priest of the Church translating the bible from Greek to Latin.
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.
This version of Caravaggio’s Saint Jerome Writing is in the Galleria Borghese in Rome, Italy.