September 28th 2019

“St Jerome” 1607/08, Caravaggio, Museum of St John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta, Malta.  St Jerome (c.342-420) was a scholarly priest whose life of prayer and penance led to him being  recognised as a saint.  His translation of the bible into Latin, known as the Vulgate, became the standard one used throughout Christendom. At one point,  he was the Pope’s secretary and it  supposed that he was therefore a cardinal. As a result, he is usually depicted with a cardinal’s hat as an attribute, although such hats were not worn in his lifetime.  In this painting his hat is hanging on the wall.  St Jerome spent some years as a a hermit and is usually depicted in a wilderness landscape with his chest bare. Here his life of prayer and penance is symbolised by the crucifix, the scull and the stone.  This Jerome seems to be sitting on his bed and writing in a book.  As if gripped by a sudden inspiration,  he sits up on his bed and writes it down lest he forget. Notice that the candle on the right is unlit,  but nonetheless, Jerome is bathed in  unexplained light which is, of course, how Caravaggio often depicts the sacred writers.  This St Jerome was painted for a Knight of Malta, called Ippolito Malaspina.  You can see his coat of arms on the lower right. It was intended to hang in his home and no doubt be seen by his many influential friends and associates. It was painted just after Caravaggio arrived in Malta, hoping to become a knight and so be protected from the death sentence awaiting him in Rome. He painted it to impress the Knights and clearly did so, not least, the Grand Master of the knights, Alof de Wignacourt.  In fact, Caravaggio also painted a portrait of the Grand Master, which is now in the Louvre.  There is no doubt that the model for this St Jerome resembles Wignacourt as seen in the portrait. In the portrait he is shown wearing a suit of armour, not his own, but one from about 40 years earlier when the Knights played an important role in the victory at Lepanto.  Wignacourt ,in a suit of armour,  attended by one of his pages, contrasts with  this St Jerome who is clad only in a loin cloth and cloak. The cloak has fallen from his left shoulder revealing the sagging flesh of old age.  In fact St Jerome lived to be almost 80 and spent his last years in a monastery near Bethlehem.  Interestingly, this way of depicting St Jerome with a bare chest, a white loin cloth and a red cloak was also how Caravaggio often depicted St John the Baptist,  who also lived a life of penance in the wilderness.  The pose here is very similar to his John the Baptist of 1606,  now at the Palazzo Corsini in Rome.  In both paintings, the subject is in a darkened space and is shown seated. The same supernatural light illuminates the bare torso of the Baptist, who turns as if he has just noticed that someone is about to approach.  Perhaps Caravaggio sees the similarity between  the young man in the wilderness who prepares the way of the Lord, who is the Word made flesh,  and the much older man,  whose life had been spent in service to the Word in the scriptures.  Tomorrow is the Feast of St Jerome. It will be the 1699th anniversary of his death.


Edinburgh Catholic Chaplaincy

The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.

The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.

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