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St. Jerome in his Study

Albrecht Durer

St. Jerome in his Study

Albrecht Durer
  • Date: 1514
  • Style: Northern Renaissance
  • Genre: religious painting
  • Media: engraving
  • Tag: Christianity, saints-and-apostles
  • Dimensions: 18.8 x 24.7 cm
  • Order Oil Painting

The engraving St. Jerome in his Study (1514) depicts the scholar-saint in his study in a meditative state. St. Jerome, one of four fathers of the Church, was the first to translate the Bible to Latin. Considered one of the greatest biblical scholars, St. Jerome is the patron of translators, librarians and encyclopedists. He was admired and celebrated among Renaissance humanists, including Dürer himself. In fact, Dürer featured St. Jerome more than any other saint in his work. Coincidentally, in the same year Dürer created the engraving, his friend and one of leaders of the Protestant Reformation in Nuremberg, Lazarus Spengler, published the biography of St. Jerome. In the engraving, Dürer shows an ideal state of contemplative solitude, which appeals to Renaissance humanists. The artist creates the space with perspectival accuracy, and it was even suggested that the study resembled one of the upper rooms of Dürer’s house. The engraving projects an atmosphere of intimate domesticity: the room is illuminated by a soft light, while St. Jerome works at his desk and his loyal companions, the lion and the dog, rest in the foreground. The lion is traditionally St. Jerome’s companion, referring to the story in which St. Jerome domesticated the animal, after pulling a thorn from his paw. Other details, such as the slippers under the bench and the numerous cushions, give a sense of domestic warmth and comfort.

The engraving is often analyzed together with Melencolia I (1514), another famous engraving by Dürer. Documents show that on occasion Dürer gave away the two engravings as a pair. The two engravings show two sides of the intellectual pursuit, the traditional divide of divine and secular knowledge. Thus, in the engravings, St. Jerome represents the ideal of theological wisdom juxtaposed by the frustration of the secular genius in Melencolia I. The contrast between the engravings is highlighted through composition and lighting. The space in St. Jerome in his Study is meticulous and orderly, each object has its particular place and the overall mood is serene and harmonious. On the other hand, the objects in Melencolia I are scattered in haphazard manner, which reflect the somber atmosphere. In the same way, the sunlit interior of St. Jerome’s study is opposed to the darkness that envelopes the personification of Melancholia.

One of the interesting details in the engraving is the gourd vine hanging from the threshold in the right corner of the room. In the Bible, the plant is mentioned in the Book of Jonah, where God prepared a gourd to give Jonah shade, to help relieve him from his grief. St. Jerome translated the name of the plant as hedera, a type of ivy, and rejected the old Latin translation of cucurbita, a gourd. This prompted a philological debate with St. Augustine in a letter exchange in the years 403-404. The gourd is also a symbol of transience: in the story of Jonah the gourd arose and perished in a night at God’s command. Therefore, the gourd can relate to the skull resting on the window sill, and interpreted as a memento mori, a reminder of the temporality of life. In the context of the scholarly atmosphere, the gourd hints at the philological discussion between St. Jerome and St. Augustine, and celebrates scholarly debate and theological wisdom.

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Saint Jerome in His Study (German: Der heilige Hieronymus im Gehäus) is an engraving of 1514 by the German artist Albrecht Dürer. Saint Jerome is shown sitting behind his desk, engrossed in work. The table, on the corner of which is a cross, is typical of the Renaissance. An imaginary line from Jerome's head passing through the cross would arrive at the skull on the window ledge, as if contrasting death and the Resurrection. The lion in the foreground is part of the traditional iconography of St. Jerome, and near it is a sleeping dog, an animal found frequently in Dürer's works, symbolizing loyalty. Both creatures are part of Jerome's story in the Golden Legend (c. 1260), which contained fanciful hagiographies of saints.

St. Jerome in His Study is often considered as part of a group of three Dürer engravings, the other two being the well-known Melencolia I (1514) and Knight, Death and the Devil (1513). Together they have been viewed as representing the three spheres of activity recognized in medieval times: Knight, Death, and the Devil belongs to the moral sphere and the "active life"; Melencolia I represents the intellectual; and St. Jerome the theological and contemplative life.

The composition is intimate, but the viewer has difficulty locating himself in relation to the picture's space. Thomas Puttfarken suggests that while the scene is very close to the observer, Dürer did not intend the viewer to feel present: "the intimacy is not ours, but the saint's as he is engrossed in study and meditation" (94). Art historian Erwin Panofsky comments on the perspective:

Using a dried gourd hanging from the rafters, Dürer memorializes Jerome's courage, in the face of a long brewing philological controversy with St. Augustine in his preference for Greek over Latin nomenclature for the fast-growing plant known in Hebrew as קיקיון (qiyqayown) encountered only this once, in the Book of Jonah. The Old Testament text closes abruptly (Jonah 4) with an epistolary warning based on the emblematic trope of a fast-growing vine present in Persian narratives, and popularized widely in certain collections of Aesop's fables such as The Gourd and the Palm-tree. Jerome elected to use Hedera (from the Greek, meaning ivy) over the more common Latin cucurbita from which the related English plant name cucumber is derived, perhaps to avoid confusion while making a more perfect analogy to the typology of Christ "I am the Vine you are the branches". In fact Augustine's view had already prevailed by Dürer's time.

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