As the Season of Creation begins this coming week, I thought this small painting by Giovanni Bellini might help us to ponder our place within the whole of God’s creation. The subject is St Jerome (347 – 420) who, as well being the scholar who translated the Greek text of the Bible into Latin, was also a papal secretary and a hermit in the wilderness, first near Antioch and then, in the latter half of his life, near Bethlehem. He was a very popular subject in Renaissance and Counter Reformation painting. Giovanni Bellini painted him several times as did later artists such as Caravaggio. In some works he is shown as a scholar seated in his study, reading the scriptures. He is sometimes shown as a cardinal with a red cloak and hat, because it was assumed that to be a papal secretary he must have held that office. In other works, he is shown as an elderly and ascetic hermit doing penance in the wilderness. The artist usually includes a stone with which he beat his chest and a crucifix by means of which he contemplated the sufferings and the death of Christ. He often wears a tunic and his his torso, arms and feet are bare. It was said that he lived in a cave, when at Bethlehem, and so his wilderness abode is often a place of rocks. It was said that his only companion was a lion which he had once healed and the beast remained with him. The lion is his most common attribute.
In Bellini’s Venice St Jerome was a popular subject in devotional paintings, partly because of links his native Dalmatia, but also because the idea of leaving the busy crowded life of Venice for a place of solitude and prayer on the terra firma had a strong appeal to his contemporaries. In this picture Bellini depicts St Jerome in a new way. Most of the usual elements are missing. The saint is seated on some rocks, absorbed in his reading. Behind him, in the distance we see a town and a city wall with defensive towers along its length. It might be a port with a fortress above. The saint is separated from this urban world of trade and politics by an open meadow, fields, and then, a body of water. The rocky surroundings suggest that the saint is in a very different terrain. A white dove is perched on a branch which might suggest the presence of the Holy Spirit but it may just be a symbol of peace. Bellini includes the customary lion on the bottom right. But we know that this was added later. What is new is that there are none of the usual attributes in the original painting nor is there is there any overtly religious symbol. The man could be a humanist scholar. In the Uffizi, there is a much larger painting of St Jerome in the wilderness by Bellini, in which the saint has exactly the same pose. It is earlier dating from 1480.
It is much “busier”. The city is much more prominent. There is a crucifix and a number of birds, a squirrel and even a lizard. Comparing the two, it is clear that in this later version Bellini sought above all to convert a sense of peace and harmony. The painting in the National Gallery In London is very small (18 1/2 X 13 1/4 inches) so it would have been painted for private devotion. The re-use of the same pose suggests that Bellini may have been commissioned to re-interpret his earlier “St Jerome”.
At first glance, your eye settles on the blue garment. It sits within a delicate palate of ochres, browns and greens. You find the same blue in the sky and notice how the clouds echo the white of the saint’s splendid beard. But what is most interesting about this picture is that Bellini painted the landscape, not simply as an appropriate backdrop for the saint, but gives it an equal voice, as it were. Although St Jerome seems to be totally absorbed in his book and oblivious to the landscape, actually, Bellini uses colour and the composition to show both the saint and the landscape as part of one harmonious whole. Viewed through modern eyes, with the Season of Creation in mind, this little painting is like vision of how we might have lived within God’s creation, and, perhaps also, it was intended as a glimpse of the new heaven and the new earth promised in the scriptures.
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.