This small double-sided painting was most probably made for private worship. The front shows Saint Jerome kneeling in front of a crucifix wedged into the stump of a tree. He beats his chest with a rock in empathy with Christ’s Passion (his torture and death at the Crucifixion). The lion resting beside him was his companion from the moment he removed a thorn from its foot.
Dürer’s version of the desert – or wilderness – in which the saint lived for years is particularly northern European. The grasses and flowers around his knees, for example, are closely observed and include a number of different varieties. Two little goldfinches perch by the edge of a stream, one drinking from it (the bird was traditionally a symbol of Christ’s Passion).
The reverse depicts a dark sky and what might be planets, a comet or meteorite or an eclipse, possibly a reference to Saint John the Evangelist’s descriptions of the end of the world as recorded in the Book of Revelation.
This small panel, which is painted on both sides, was most probably made for private worship. Intended to be portable, it could be turned over in the owner’s hands so they could view each side. The front shows Saint Jerome kneeling in front of a crucifix wedged into the stump of a tree. He was a scholar, and his major achievement was to translate the Bible – which he clutches in his right hand – from Greek into Latin. The text, known as the Vulgate, is still used by the Roman Catholic Church today. To honour his contribution to the Church, Jerome was often shown wearing the robes and wide-brimmed hat of a cardinal, although the office didn‘t exist in his lifetime. In this painting, these are discarded on the ground in front of him.
According to his legend, Jerome lived as a hermit in the desert outside Bethlehem, where he had retreated to escape the worldly temptations of Rome. There, according to his writings, he used to ’fling [himself] at Jesus‘ feet… and ceased not to beat my breast till tranquillity returned to me.’ This practice was intended to provoke empathy for Christ’s Passion. The lion resting beside him here is also a common feature of images of the saint; Jerome removed a thorn from the lion’s paw and from that day onward the animal did not leave his side.
Images of Jerome were very popular in Italy but until this time they were largely unknown in Dürer’s native Germany. The artist almost certainly made this painting after his return from Venice, where he travelled in 1495. Dürer’s version of the desert – or wilderness – is particularly northern European. The saint’s figure is dwarfed against a vast landscape of craggy cliffs filled with coniferous and deciduous trees; some even spring from the crevices of the crags. The wooded area on the left of the picture encloses the Gothic spire of a church, its point matching the peaks of the distant, snow-capped mountain range. The alpine setting is clearly inspired by Germany, and its features recall the numerous detailed watercolour studies that Dürer made directly from nature. These studies express his interest in the natural world and his intensive study of even its most humble elements. The grasses and flowers around Jerome’s knees, for example, are closely observed and include a number of different varieties. Two little goldfinches perch by the edge of a stream, one drinking from it (the bird was traditionally a symbol of Christ’s Passion). The lion probably comes from a study on parchment (now in the print room of the Hamburg Kunsthalle) that Dürer made in 1494, although that work shows the lion standing rather than lying down. The fine hairs of the lion’s mane are highlighted in the sunlight, just like those of Jerome’s soft, wispy beard.
The bright yellow of the sunset (or sunrise) dominates the picture, its dazzling luminosity reinforcing the intensity of Jerome’s prayer. Above the clouds it deepens to a peach and then a soft red. The clouds are dark and foreboding and, coupled with the setting of abundant and untamed nature, create a tense and dramatic atmosphere. The potential of light to create atmosphere would have become familiar to Dürer from his study of Venetian painting, particularly the works of Giovanni Bellini.
The sense of foreboding created by the turbulent sky in the image of Saint Jerome is developed on the reverse of the panel, which shows a celestial body with a streaming red tail against a dark night sky; it’s unclear if it is a comet, a meteorite falling to earth or an eclipse. The image has been interpreted as a representation of the end of the world as described in the Book of Revelation by Saint John the Evangelist. Many fifteenth- and sixteenth-century images of Jerome included allusions to the Last Judgement as, according to medieval texts, he was regarded as a prophet of it, having heard the trumpets that were a sign of Christ’s judgement at the end of the world (Revelation 8: 6–9: 21). The reverse might then be intended to represent one of the six signs of the Apocalypse revealed to John: ‘the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale’ (Revelation 6: 12–13).
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