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Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
St Jerome in his study
An engraving showing St Jerome working in his study.
Dürer made a number of prints of St Jerome, showing him as an exile in the wilderness in 1492 and 1512, and as a scholar in his study in this engraving of 1514. The room is scattered with the saint’s identifying attributes: his cardinal’s hat hangs on the wall behind him, while the lion he is supposed to have tamed lies on the floor next to a contented dog (an indication that the normally predatory lion poses no threat). The gourd hanging prominently from the ceiling to the right of the print refers to Jerome as a translator of the Bible: he famously disagreed with Augustine over a word in the book of Jonah, which he thought meant ‘ivy’ rather than ‘gourd’. Hints at a comfortable existence are given in the slippers under the bench and the profusion of cushions on the seats. If the saint looks up from his writing, however, he will see a Crucifix, reminder of the sacrifice of Christ, and a skull, reminder of his own mortality. Behind him hangs an hourglass, a symbol of time passing and, again, a memento mori.
St Jerome (d.420) was one of the four Fathers of the Church and is most renowned as the translator and editor of the Bible into Latin. This work was partly undertaken with the encouragement of St Damasus, the Pope for whom Jerome briefly acted as secretary - to which role his cardinal’s hat refers. The print, as well as being an image of a saint, fits into a tradition of pictures of scholars at work. Quinten Massys’s portrait of Erasmus at his desk dates from a few years after Dürer’s print, while the image was adapted by the Master WS to make a flattering portrait of Luther as St Jerome in 1546. Along with the 'Melancholia' and 'A Knight, Death and the Devil', this print is one of Dürer’s so-called 'Meisterstiche', or master engravings, and was as prized by contemporaries as it is today.
Catalogue entry adapted from 'The Northern Renaissance. Dürer to Holbein', London 2011