Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Jerome, patron saints of translators

Due to his having translated the Bible into Latin, St. Jerome (340-420) was recognized by later generations as the patron saint of translators. Few saints have inspired so many paintings, especially during the Renaissance.

In many of them, Jerome is shown as the desert ascetic he was for a significant part of his life. I saw one example of such a painting last month at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC:

The paintings of Jerome in the desert are wonderful and connect with a major part of his life, but my personal favorite is one by Antonello da Messina that hangs at the National Gallery in London.

Da Messina removes Jerome from the wilderness, placing him instead in an academic carrel, putting the stress on Jerome as scholar. It was the scholarly Jerome who became a hero of Christian humanists like Erasmus in 16th century Europe.

There is always a lion in paintings of Jerome. In the example by da Messina, one has to look in the shadows to the right to find him.

In Christian art, there are two sorts of lions, the baptized and the unbaptized. Jerome's lion is in the former category, a pacified lion who has embraced a vegetarian diet.

In fact the lion wandered into paintings of Jerome from the life story of a saint with a similar name, Gerasimos, who was abbot of a monastery along the Jordan River, not far from Jerome's cave in Bethlehem. Here is an example of a Gerasimos icon that's part of our icon corner, with a caption of which explains the lion story:

A comment about the da Messina painting from Nancy:

"This is Jerome of the well-ordered mind. Note that the center of the painting is not Jerome but the open book. Everything around it is peace, harmony and beauty. No street noise outside, no telephone ringing, no postman knocking on the door. All is tranquility, and the work goes on unimpeded. No distractions, no Facebook, no YouTube. Ahh, you can almost feel it. But then again, no wife to talk to, no children, no worldly cares. Just the task at hand, total focus on the work. Is this possible for us, or even desirable? Even writing this e-mail is keeping me from my work..."

We have a print of the da Messina painting that hangs near Nancy's desk. I'm sure she's not the only translator who finds encouragement in having an image of Jerome close to her work place.

-- Jim

note: Wikipedia has a good entry about Jerome:


AbbaMoses said...

Thanks, nice post. Botticelli did a very nice Last Communion of St Jerome. If it has a lion in it I can't find it.
The Messina painting is lovely. Carefully-rendered architecture fills most of the painting, with the Saint and his study taking up a relatively small part of the center. The artist seems to be saying something about the culture and infrastructure, as we'd say now, that make the Saint's work possible.

John (Juan) Donaghy said...

Jerome actually worked in a cave, now under the Catholic church attached to the Church of the Nativity. There is now a passageway from the cave to the actual site of the nativity. (I don't know if the passageway was there in Jerome's time.)
Jerome is quite an interesting figure who was quite outspoken and lost a few friends using his quick wit and "biting" pen.

Anonymous said...

"God's Grouch" - Merton