Saint Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin from Greek and Hebrew, is reading in his study, surrounded by books, an inkwell, an unlit candle and Crucifix. A lion, his traditional companion, lies on the ground near his creased slippers. The partridge may be associated with both truth and deceit. Jerome’s pink robe, blue hood and hat are unusual; he is normally shown wearing the red robes of a cardinal.
The elaborate brass lectern is ornamented with a lion’s paw and has a long pointed spike to which a candle could be attached for reading after dark. In the open cupboards are a wicker flagon, a jar, and more of Saint Jerome’s books. All the objects in the room are meticulously painted. The Venetian artist Catena may have trained with Giovanni Bellini, and it is easy to see the influence of Bellini’s clear, crisp style in this picture.
Saint Jerome translated the Bible into Latin from the original Greek and Hebrew. He is shown here reading in the peace and quiet of his study, the lower walls of which are lined with a green silk velvet curtain. He has left Rome, which may be the city visible in the distance through the window, and retreated to Bethlehem where he has founded a Latin monastery and a convent.
Jerome’s traditional attribute of a lion lies on the ground near his creased slippers. According to legend, Saint Jerome tamed a lion by removing a thorn from its paw while he was living as a hermit in the wilderness of the Syrian desert. The lion is so docile that a partridge passes by unharmed. Partridges appear in other images of Saint Jerome in his study, such as this example by Antonello da Messina (as do the discarded slippers). Two partridges also appear in Catena’s A Warrior adoring the Infant Christ and the Virgin. The partridge may be associated with truth and deceit.
Typical of Catena, everything is carefully organised, almost as if to geometrical principles. Jerome is seated on a bench at a spacious L-shaped desk surrounded by books, an inkwell, an unlit candle and Crucifix. The figure of Christ is set against the pale blue sky. It is not clear how the Crucifix is attached to the desk, and it may be intended to represent the subject of Jerome’s thoughts – like a vision. He rests his head in one hand as he reads from an open volume. Another book stands on the elaborate brass lectern before him, which is ornamented with a brass lion’s paw and has a long pointed spike to which a candle could be attached. In the open wall cupboards are a wicker flagon, a jar, and more of Saint Jerome’s books.
We do not know for whom the picture was painted, but it may have been made to hang in a priest’s study. All the objects in the room are of good quality and are meticulously painted. Catena may have been taught by Giovanni Bellini, and it is easy to see the influence of Bellini’s clear, crisp style here.
Saint Jerome was traditionally shown in the red robes of a cardinal, even though the office of cardinal did not exist in his time. The pink and blue of Jerome’s robes and the blue of his cardinal’s hat here are unusual. It is not clear why Catena has chosen to depart from tradition in this way. Until the 1460s it was customary for cardinals to wear a violet or blue cape unless granted the privilege of wearing red when acting on papal business, or in penitence or mourning. It was also common for cardinals to wear blue hats prior to appointment if they were not bishops (Saint Jerome was not a bishop). The blue hood of his cassock is also like those worn by parish priests in Venice at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Perhaps Catena simply wanted the hat to balance the blue of the sky and the hood to draw our eye to Saint Jerome.
There is another version of the painting in the Staedel Institut, Frankfurt-am-Main, as well as one sold at Sotheby’s in London on 3 July 1997.
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