One of the Fathers of the Catholic Church, Saint Jerome (342-420) is best known for translating the Bible into Latin. This painting, illustrating an initial ‘M’ from an Antiphonal, depicts his four years of penitence in the Syrian desert where he lived the life of a hermit, studying Hebrew, and contemplating his sins. The saint’s iconography derives from the medieval Golden Legend and remained fixed throughout later centuries. Several different episodes from the saint’s hermitage are combine in this miniature, creating a unique composition. Loosely wrapped in a thick red robe, Jerome pounds his chest with a stone to mortify his body and resist temptations. The horn extending from the clouds references the Vision of Saint Jerome in which the saint hears the trumpet of the Final Judgment and sees a vision of the Cross rising before him. No such cross is present in this painting. Instead, Jerome turns the pages of a book in an allusion to his biblical scholarship and status as Doctoris ecclesiae universalis. The skull below the book – a motif more commonly found in images of Saint Jerome in his Study – is both a memento mori and a representation of Wisdom centered in the seat of the mind. The scene unfolds in front of a rocky grotto painted with thick washes of grey and touches of ocher, covered by a thicket of vines and shrubs.
Unusually large, the miniature compares to Spanish Choir Books from the latter half of the eighteenth century such as an Antiphonal created in 1774 for the Franciscan Mission in Santa Barbara California (figs. 1-2). As in our miniature, large mise-en-scène illustrations introduce sizeable gold initials outlined in thick black line. The script on the reverse also points to an eighteenth-century date, with letterforms modeled on typeface and likely produced through stencil. Large, swirling brushstrokes terminate abruptly at the edges and smudging is apparent. The miniature’s enormous size (370 × 319 mm) also points to a later eighteenth-century date when Choir Books expanded significantly in scale.
Kindel, E. “A Reconstruction of Stenciling Based on the Description by Gilles Filleau des Billettes,” Typography Papers 9 (2013), pp. 28-65.
Rice, E. F. Saint Jerome in the Renaissance, Baltimore, 1988.
Ridderbos, B. Saint and Symbol: Images of Saint Jerome in Early Italian Art, Groningen, 1984.