Albrecht Durer’s Saint Jerome in His Study is a spiritual reflection on a life well lived.
Who is Durer
Dürer is often referred to as the DaVinci of the North, a true Renaissance man who led the Northern Renaissance from his home in Nuremberg, Germany. His father was a goldsmith, a trade that provided Dürer with a solid artistic base. After apprenticing as a painter and woodcut artist Dürer traveled through Europe and into Italy absorbing the spirit of the Italian Renaissance.
Prolific, original, and ingenious, Dürer mastered multiple styles and techniques. Exhibiting equal skill with painting, engraving, etching, woodcut, drypoint, landscape, portrait, and nature studies, Dürer was unique among artists of his own era, and has continued to inspire generations of artists since.
Durer’s spiritual reflection on a life well lived
Saint Jerome in his study is a copper engraving that Dürer completed between 1513 and 1514.
During this time Dürer made 11 copper engravings, three of these: Saint Jerome in His Study, Melancholia I, and The Knight, Death and the Devil, are considered his master engravings.
These three prints explore the three activities of man: the active life, the contemplative life, and the intellectual life. Saint Jerome in his study is about the intellectual life, particularly when that life is one of service to God.
This print is also an exploration of the wider question of Dürer’s age – what is the right pursuit of man, and how are we to use our gifts; Dürer used this print to explore that question. He also compared a life of service to God against one in opposition to God, (the Melancholia print) Using classical forms, mathematical perspective and the ideals of a scholarly life, this print is Dürer’s spiritual reflection on a life well lived.
Saint Jerome was a popular subject in 1514
The print was made in 1514, the same year Saint Jerome’s biography was released in German by one of Dürer’s friends, Lazarus Spengler. The early church father had caught the imagination of both the Humanists, and the Reformation leaders, so interest in Saint Jerome was high, and an engraving, that could have multiple prints produced, was a good business move for Dürer.
What are engravings?
An engraving is drawn with a tool called a burin onto a copper plate. The burin creates grooves for the ink. Next an inked brayer, or roller is rolled over the plate settling ink into the grooves.
Lastly, paper is soaked in water and then run through a printing press. The damp paper will sink into the grooves and absorb the ink. The actual printing is an art form in itself, and the skills of the printer make a difference in the quality of the finished print.
Contrasted to making woodcuts, artists found they had greater control with engravings and could create finer lines and more textured prints with this technique. Here we can see the texture of the wooden beams, lions’ fur, and paned windows. With just line Dürer convincingly communicates a variety of textures.
Copper engravings do have one major disadvantage. The copper plate can be damaged in the printing press, so the number of prints is limited. The sturdier woodcut can create nearly unlimited prints. Even with that, engravings became the preferred method to illustrate books and were often highly valued as standalone works of art that could be framed and hung in a home.
Who was Saint Jerome?
Saint Jerome in His Study is a study of the church father, Saint Jerome, as he works. Saint Jerome was born in 342 A.D. to wealthy Christian parents who gave their son an excellent education and when he was 12 sent him to Rome to continue his studies.
During these student years he lived a worldly lifestyle but was repeatedly drawn to the catacombs where early Christians were buried and had worshipped. The catacombs had a profound and lasting impression on Jerome, and at 24 he was baptized. He felt an early draw to monastic life, and for 5 years lived as a hermit in the wilderness, seeking God through this more extreme exercise of faith.
He eventually would become a priest, but it appears that was a decision made under duress, he had refused several times before giving in and being ordained. He wished to avoid the politics of organized church life, preferring monastic life and independence to practice his faith as he saw fit. Saint Jerome established a monastic community in Bethlehem where he eventually settled. This is where the legend of his lion companion was born.
Throughout Jerome’s life he counseled and was friends with several noble women who wished to remain virgins and enter a monastic life as well. We have many letters answering questions from these women, as to how they could best embrace monastic life. One of these women, St. Paula, was instrumental in helping Jerome with his translation of the Bible and founding the monastery in Bethlehem.
Saint Jerome’s intellect and curiosity were immense, and he read and traveled broadly during his life. At one point he had a religious experience that caused him to purge all of the secular books from his library and to focus solely on Scripture. Jerome is best known for his translation of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin, the Vulgate. His translation was in continuous use until 1979.
Despite leaving behind his classical studies and immersing himself in translations of Scripture and writing commentaries, Saint Jerome became the patron saint of the Humanists. They saw in his intellect and faith a figure who could embody and combine the Humanist and Christian ideals.
Along with his intellect, St. Jerome was equally well known for his temper. Highly confrontational when he saw abuses, St. Jerome was an outspoken critic of excesses within the church. His style has been described as polemic, aggressively attacking and undermining those who disagreed with him. I tend to picture him as an abrasive prophet, sent to warn the early church about their shortcomings.
Durer felt a personal connection to Jerome
Albrecht Dürer favored Saint Jerome, painting his image more often than any other Saint. I believe Dürer identified with St. Jerome on a few levels. Dürer also lived during a time when the church was in need of rebuking and reform. Dürer sympathized with the Lutherans and read some of Martin Luther’s writings. Many supporters of the Reformation saw in Saint Jerome an ally to their cause.
Secondly, Jerome translated the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into Latin, a language more widely known throughout Europe. In doing this he provided a greater number of people direct access to the message of the Bible. In Dürer’s time in Germany, Gutenberg, under a great deal of opposition and threat, printed the Bible into German, a courageous act that furthered the cause of the Reformation. Again, people could read Scripture for themselves and became less dependent on the church.
Dürer was a self-aware artist, a mark of the Renaissance. He no longer saw himself as an anonymous craftsman, but as a man gifted by God with intellect, creativity, and insights. He would have seen his work of translating Scripture into a visual language as important as Gutenberg’s printing Scripture in German, or Jerome’s translating the Bible into Latin.
There is nothing simple about Albrecht Dürer, he is a complicated man with conflicting loyalties, emotions, and theological thoughts. His art is filled with symbols and meaning that we need to dig into to appreciate. He often raises questions without giving answers, causing his viewers to go deeper into contemplating and struggling with what is truth.
So, as we dive deeper into Saint Jerome in His Study we need to keep in mind not just the subject of the work, Saint Jerome, but the artist who has created this spectacular print. While the print might be of Saint Jerome, Dürer is equally present here.
The use of light in Durer’s Saint Jerome in His Study
Giorgio Vasari was the author of the first Art History book covering this era. His “Lives of the Artists” was published in 1568 and is invaluable to modern scholarship as it gives many firsthand accounts of the artists and reveals how they were perceived during their lives. When speaking about this print Vasari said of the sun coming in the window, “an effect so natural, it is a marvel,” “nothing more and nothing better could be done in this field of art.”
In fact, it is Dürer’s mastery of light in this print that has led to it being called the greatest of his prints. The light creates an evocative atmosphere that establishes in the mind of the viewer the peaceful, intimate feeling of the room. Light streams through the windows casting shadows and warming the lion and dog as they lie in the foreground.
Along with the light, the textures that Dürer has conceived with just lines are stunning. The roughness of wood, fur of the lion, and plushness of the pillows all lend a sense of solid reality. Using hatching, cross hatching, and dashed lines Dürer creates depth, shadow, and tranquility.
Saint Jerome’s Lion
In Durer’s Saint Jerome in His Study the artist has surrounded Saint Jerome with iconography that would be familiar to all of his viewers. First and foremost is the lion lying in the center of the foreground. You can tell by looking that this is a tame lion, if there is such a thing. The story of the lion is recorded in the Golden Legend, a book of collected stories of the saints.
According to legend, at the monastery in Bethlehem that Saint Jerome founded, a lion wandered into the courtyard. Everyone fled inside, except for Saint Jerome, who bravely greeted the lion, as you should greet any guest. Sensing the lion’s distress, Saint Jerome found and removed a thorn from the lion’s paw. (A basic retelling of the ancient story of Androcles and the Lion).
From that time on the lion was devoted to the abbot and remained at the monastery. The monks determined that if the lion was going to stay he needed a job, and so they told the lion he was to guard their donkey as it went in and out each day. The lion gladly did this, but one day the lion was sleeping and some merchants going by saw the unguarded donkey and took it.
The lion awoke and was deeply distressed to find the donkey missing. The monks at the monastery were convinced that the lion had eaten the donkey and punished him. The lion, ashamed of his lapse, searched for his charge, and one day saw the band of merchants with the donkey. The lion ran at them to retrieve the donkey, frightening them into flight. The merchants then repented of their thievery and came to Saint Jerome to confess and cleared the lion of all wrongdoing. Apologies were made to the lion for their assumptions about his character, and the lion remained with Saint Jerome from that time onward.
In every painting of Saint Jerome, his lion companion is painted with him. Often, as we see here, there is also a dog, denoting faithfulness and loyalty. The two animals lying next to each other lend the print a sense of peace. There is a supernatural or spiritual element to the two animals lying together, sharing this space.
Saint Jerome Fights with Saint Augustine
Above the lion’s body in the foreground of Durer’s Saint Jerome in His Study , hanging from the ceiling, is a gourd. This is also a famous story. Saint Jerome and Saint Augustine, both early church fathers, had a famous dispute about a gourd. In the book of Jonah we find Jonah sitting on a hill in the noon day heat and God causes a vine (or gourd) to grow up to shade Jonah.
The word for vine that is used is unclear, Augustine insisted it was ivy, Jerome insisted it was a gourd. It seems a silly argument, but this was a heated debate. Dürer includes the reference here not because he sided with Jerome in the debate but because the people of the Renaissance saw Jerome’s taking a stand against Augustine as proof that Saint Jerome was a man of integrity and courage, that he stood his ground despite holding an unpopular opinion. (Augustine’s was the accepted translation.) They also point to his superb scholarship in noticing the discrepancy in the translation from the Hebrew.
Was Jerome a Cardinal
Behind Saint Jerome, on the wall, we find a Cardinal’s hat. During the Renaissance it was believed that Saint Jerome had been a Cardinal, but we know that wasn’t true. There were no Cardinals during Saint Jerome’s lifetime, that was an office which was created later. The reason for the confusion was, for a short period, Saint Jerome served as the secretary to the Pope, a position traditionally held by a Cardinal.
In fact, Jerome had been reluctant to be made even a priest and resisted when the Pope demanded he travel to Rome to help with a dispute. Saint Jerome preferred sending off scathing letters to those he felt were in the wrong, but actually involving himself in the power structure and politics of the church was something he avoided.
Despite these facts Jerome is always pictured either wearing a Cardinal’s hat or having one nearby. In Durer’s print of Saint Jerome in His Study, with the hat removed we can see Saint Jerome’s halo. Even though the room is well lit, the halo around Jerome is obvious. The halo demonstrates that Saint Jerome is lit from within with the light of God, and the light of knowledge.
Scattered about the room we find evidence of Jerome’s scholarly, comfortable life. There are books, papers, pens, and scissors, all attesting to his work as a writer and theologian. There are also ample cushions and his slipper under a bench to tell us that while he lives and works in a monastery, and the room isn’t filled with riches, it is still a comfortable, ordered life.
Hanging on the wall above Saint Jerome is an hourglass, a common image meant to remind the viewer of the short and transient nature of life. This is called a memento mori, a medieval term that refers to the practice of reflecting on our mortality. Contemplating death was thought to aid an individual so that they would see the vanity of earthly life and pursuits and choose to pursue heavenly things instead.
Saint Jerome’s choices to live as a hermit, and in monasteries, along with the letters we have from him, led to a strong connection with memento mori. Because of this Saint Jerome is often pictured with a skull, the ultimate reminder of death. In the print a skull sits on the bench, always within sight of the working saint.
If we examine Saint Jerome’s desk we find a crucifix sitting in the corner, an unsurprising addition to the room. Drawing a line from Saint Jerome’s eyes, through the crucifix we land on the skull. As Saint Jerome contemplates the skull, death, and the transience of life, he does so through the Christian message of the cross.
The last detail we will examine in Durer’s print Saint Jerome in His Study is the placard with Dürer’s monogram on it that has apparently fallen to the floor. A clever way to include it in the print. Artists have not always signed their prints, and the practice which was coming into use during the Renaissance speaks to the changing way artist viewed themselves. They no longer wished to be anonymous, but to be recognized as individuals.
In Dürer’s case making his monogram a part of a print had come to serve a practical purpose. Dürer was the first artist to see the potential in the printing press and purchase one for his workshop. Producing prints, whether they be woodcuts, engravings, or etchings, provides an artist with the ability to create a work of art, and then sell it to multiple buyers. This is hardly remarkable to us, but it was a revolutionary concept in Dürer’s day.
Dürer was not just an amazing artist, he also a skilled business man, taking advantage of new technologies as they became available. He created a steady income stream with his prints. This stability had never been available to artist before this time, instead they were dependent on the next commission, or trying to keep a patron happy.
While prints had obvious advantages, they also had one major flaw, they were very easy to counterfeit, and copyright laws did not exist. Rival artist workshops could purchase a print, then use the print as a pattern, create their own plate, and begin selling the same print. An artist in Italy became so adept at counterfeiting Dürer’s art, that the artist traveled to Italy to bring the issue into the courts.
A judge ruled against Dürer saying his prints could be copied, however his monogram could not. This ruling seems strange to us, but we place a higher value on artists than Dürer’s contemporaries did. Artists were treated as any other common laborer, like a baker or carpenter.
Fortunately for Dürer, his monogram had become a recognized brand of his art, so collectors were aware of the value of an original Dürer. Also Dürer’s designs were so complicated and detailed that few were capable of reproducing them, and the quality gave away the fakes.
Albrecht Dürer’s master prints are truly astounding, and this one featuring Saint Jerome in His Study gives us much to contemplate. If your curiosity has been roused, you can check out Durer’s Rhinoceros part 1, part 2, or the Rhinoceros Video and Durer’s Adam and Eve engraving (posting 6/13/2019) Or Subscribe to my You Tube Channel.