Upon entering the National Gallery room sixty-two, nestled on the right-hand side, you could almost be forgiven for missing the unassuming ‘St. Jerome in his Study’. This piece has interested art scholars for many centuries, motivated by various debates focusing on patronage, ownership and iconographical narrative. Early scholars attributed this piece to Van Eyck, although it is now widely accepted to have been created from the brush of Antonello da Messina in circa 1475.
Originally from Sicily, da Messina’s artistic disposition was influenced by both Italian and Netherlandish techniques. Several themes permeate through this picture, designed to heighten our senses over our mind. The painting appears to exhibit characteristics traditionally associated with private devotion in the home: the use of St. Jerome as a central character known as a divine figure, the connection between Christianity and solitude, the spectators’ empathy with this event encouraging profound meditation, and a sense of private piety through the size of the piece. So can we consider Saint Jerome in his Study as a private devotional piece? Let us explore.
A visual analysis
As we take our first look, the painting is approximately 45.7 x 36.2 cm is small in scale. The piece is housed in a gloriously decorative thick dark-brown wooden frame, embossed with a weave of golden symmetrical swirls (opposite). We survey the canvas, immediately accepting yourself as an external observer; a ledge of a neo-gothic window frame separates us from the scene. Our attention is directed through the window frame, almost entirely centred in the image is the subject, a man, seated in profile and arranged parallel to the picture plane, who is deep in literary meditation. He turns the pages of his manuscript, seated at his desk within a self-contained raised study. The scholar sits in front of an array of texts, having disabused himself of his hat and slippers. A well-soiled facecloth hangs to the left, no doubt to relieve himself of excess perspiration during the humid months. An almost translucent cat sits atop the left-hand base of the desk, not quite asleep or awake, basking in the apparent warmth while being simultaneously content. To the right of the structure, emerging from the shadows, is a lion, looking somewhat dishevelled and slightly emancipated. We can see an open landscape in the background, filled with activities and rolling green hillsides. To the left, we see two individuals enjoying some boating on a still lake, with a further two individuals on the bankside busying themselves. To the right, we feel the tranquillity of a vast open space, undisturbed by any breeze and with only a moderate splattering of trees invading the view. This is a composition that is full of calmness.
The context of private devotion and its evolutional development during the early sixteenth century
As private devotional works evolved, the emphasis was always to inspire devotion and teach, through narrative and resulting in an understanding of doctrine. The smaller size characteristics of private devotional pieces enabled the use within private households and encouraged that the sacred could be brought into the home. Giovanni Bellini was one of the ‘fathers’ of private devotional paintings in Venice and created a cottage industry of producing private devotional pieces. These were mostly focused on the theme of Madonna & Child, in a range of guises from typical portrait, eventually evolving to half-length. It is argued that ‘St Jerome in his Study’ indeed exhibits elements of solitary meditation. These characteristics that were retained as private devotional images evolved into the fifteenth century. New figures were introduced, including saints, patrons, mixing genres of secular art and private piety. Visual advancements like larger landscapes in the background were designed to provide more virtuoso compositions suitable for the home.
The figure of Saint Jerome
Saint Jerome was revered as an epitome of discipline and devotion to learning, commonly presented in three distinct ways: the penitent kneeling before a crucifix, the Doctor of the church, and the man of knowledge. During the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, Jerome is found in many visual and literary pieces presented in a variety of ways. In many ways, Jerome became a bridge between religious and secular piety. Moving away from traditional private devotional images of Madonna and Child made famous by Bellini, Jerome’s history exhibited many of the characteristics of religious piety but in a more secular setting. This link is no better demonstrated than in his magisterial letter to Eustochium (Epistle 22), which discusses the need for discipline (literary dedication), chastity (through repression of lustful desires of the flesh), and piety (faith in God); all of which can be considered the very foundations of private devotional values. Could it be that the more secular figure of Jerome was a device for substituting the Doge in traditional votive style pieces?
The hidden meaning of it’s iconography
This composition exhibits a comprehensive iconography narrative, presenting further arguments for the promotion of this piece as a private devotional in nature. In Howell-Jolly’s detailed iconographic analysis of 1983, significant interpretations are focused on the use of Mariological symbols; that is motifs representing “The theological study of the Virgin Mary.”. Jolly observes “the basin, towel, clear-glass carafe, and pyx boxes – are often found together, and have relatively predictable meanings, although they appear more commonly within the context of Mariological scenes where they refer to Mary’s virginal womb and her purity.”. This suggests a strong religious devotional link, which is further reflected and reinforced in other notable symbols. A muted peacock is presented at the front on the ledge, opposed to a partridge or quail (opposite). The peacock itself has a historical link within allegoric narrative paintings and has been interpreted as a Christian symbol of immortality and Christ’s resurrection. Could the opaque use of these symbols provide an insight into a subtler inference of pious devotion?
The historical context of this analysis is a vital component if we are to resolve the argument of whether Messina’s Jerome was indeed intended for private devotional use. Why is this important? At the time of its creation, Venice was already emerging from a decade of constant defence of its Empire. Battle fatigue, a struggling economy, and a Treasury with scarce resources; all reinforcing the need to maintain civic optimism. The shackles of traditional religious piety were slowly removed. During this paradigm shift, we see subtle new variations of original themes, many of which can be identified in Messina’s Jerome composition: melancholy, meditation, devotion, discipline, yearning for open space. If investigated further, it is these parallels that could unlock the real answer.