A painting of Saint Jerome by Messina



There is something about this painting of Saint Jerome in his Study by Antonello da Messina (1475) which really captures my attention. Saint Jerome is depicted in art as either a penitent (he spent some years in the Syrian desert as a hermit) or as one of the four Fathers of the Church and a translator of the Bible.

Here we see Saint Jerome through a window or portal, as if we are passing by and stop to stare for a minute or two at this man in his study with his companion, the lion from whose paw he extracted a thorn, walking towards him. Beyond the colonnade, windows on either side open to a sunlit landscape, and the scene is illuminated both from these windows and that which appears to frame the picture.

This picture may date from Antonello’s stay in Venice (1475-76) or may merely have been sold there. The chronicler, Marcantonio Michiel, described it in a Venetian collection in 1529: ‘The little picture of Saint Jerome reading in his study in Cardinal’s attire, believed to be by the hand of Antonello of Messina: but more, and with better judgement, attribute it to Jan van Eyck or to Memlinc, the old master from the Netherlands, and it is in their manner, though the face is finished in the Italian style and therefore seems to be by the hand of Jacometto’. Both the landscapes, which include fisherman on the lake, and the casually arranged books and objects in the Saint’s study could have been mistaken for the work of a northern artist. It was this ‘northern’ skill in oil painting together with an Italian sense of form that Antonello brought to Venice with such far-reaching results.

Why does this painting capture my attention? Yes, it is the fact that one feels that one is looking through a window, at a man lost in what he is reading, oblivious to passers-by who may stop to stare for a moment or two but there is also the folds of his robes, the open books of a researcher, something disorderly but orderly to him, in contrast to his disciplined upright appearance. There is also that he appears to be sitting on stage, as if we are supposed to watch and learn, to ponder and then retreat as from the theatre.

Whatever I see in this wonderful image, no doubt you will see something different, or it may not move you at all. That is the beauty of this blog – I get to share my thoughts and you get to form your own.


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