The Secrets of St. Jerome in his Study Part 1-“They Talk Like Angels but they Live Like Men”

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The 1514 copperplate engraving St. Jerome in the Study

Text copyright © June 29, 2013 Dr. Elizabeth A. Garner, All Rights Reserved


Most art historians think that Albrecht Dürer did many saint images and that St. Jerome was the saint image that he did the most. That conclusion is not accurate for in fact, Dürer did more images concerning St. Sebastian than St. Jerome.

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St. Sebastian at the Column

At the end of his life, he did do individual engravings of four of the Apostles and also did four paintings of these Apostles for hanging in the City Hall (the Rathaus).

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The Four Apostles paintings

Printers of Dürer’s time made saint images for the city markets and festivals for these saint images were bought as amulets against disease.  They were common fare for pilgrims and travelers, just as magic squares were common amulets also sold at the markets. (Please see my previous article The Magic in the Magic Square.)  The fact that Dürer made these saint compositions can not be used to infer that he was especially religious or favored one saint over another.

Except for the St. Jerome compositions, which he did eight times, six prints and two paintings, one painting in 1495 at the beginning of his career and one in 1521, near the end.  We can infer that St. Jerome had some special meaning for Dürer because of his three drypoints, of which one is a St. Jerome in the Wilderness by the Pollard Willow.  Dürer abandoned the drypoint technique right after he did the St. Jerome drypoint because the technique was commercially unviable.

Let’s look at the basic depiction of St. Jerome in art.


The Renaissance iconography of St. Jerome derived from the wildly popular Golden Legend book, which was written by Jacobus de Voragine, around 1260.  The Golden Legend told the stories of the saints  to whom people prayed. It was the medieval version of a soap opera. There are more than 1000 manuscripts which have survived.

St. Jerome was wrongly depicted as a Cardinal, which is why we always see a Cardinal’s hat as part of St. Jerome’s apparel.  He also supposedly pulled a thorn from the paw of a lion, so St. Jerome is always depicted with his lion.  St. Jerome is usually only depicted in two ways: in the wilderness or in his cell (also called the study), the two ways that Dürer depicts him.

Jerome (347-420 AD) converted to Christianity sometime between 360-366.  He is most famous for translating the Latin Vulgate Christian bible, the bible of the common people.  Jerome had been translating from the Greek (the Septuigant) and then decided to translate from the Hebrew after 390.  These new translations from the Hebrew differed drastically from the Greek in some places.

Thus began the famous exchange of heated written letters between Jerome and the Bishop of Hippo, St. Augustine, where Augustine accuses Jerome of causing “disturbances” among the faithful with these radically new Hebrew based translations.  But Augustine was not Jerome’s only problem for the Jews accused St. Jerome of improper translations of Hebrew words, such as translating Hebrew words to mean “Hell,” the concept of which is non-existent in Hebrew.  In other words, Hell is a Christian concept.  The Jews didn’t appreciate Jerome’s efforts.

One of the famous letters between Jerome and Augustine was about the mistranslation of a Hebrew word in Jonah as “gourd.”  The argument was that the original Hebrew should have been translated as “ivy” or “ciceion” a type Syriac viney shrub.  Jerome argued gourd was correct, with which Augustine and Jews of Hippo didn’t agree.  This gourd translation did not make the Jews happy. And the “gourd” didn’t make Dürer happy either.  But let’s start at the beginning and look at Dürer’s St. Jeromes.

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The first St. Jerome, a woodcut made in Basle while Dürer was a journeyman. Strangely, the woodblock from which this composition was printed was found in the 20th century and it reveals that Dürer was allowed to have his name carved on the back as author of the illustration. This was unheard of, as we have very little information about any woodblock cutters from this time period, from about 1450-1510. Dürer was very specially treated

This print, that Dürer made as a journeyman in Basle in 1492 is extremely important.  First, Dürer was not free to design whatever he wanted; he was being paid to produce what the boss wanted.  He was a hired hand and yet, he was allowed to sign the woodblock as author.  This was unheard of for we have almost no record of who the woodblock cutters were from circa 1450-1510.  The original block with Dürer’s signature “Albrecht Dürer of Normerk (Nuremberg)” carved into the back of the block was found in the 20th century. This discovery shows that Dürer was a very coddled employee.

Even more remarkable is that Dürer showed the three books with which Jerome was involved in his translation: the Greek, the Latin and the Hebrew scriptures.  This was extraordinary, no one had done this before.

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                                                                                                                                                                          This painting is in the National Gallery, London

This painting of St. Jerome was probably commissioned. It shows Dürer’s lack of mastery over the human figure at this early stage in his career.  It’s also very strange that we see St. Jerome’s bellybutton when that was really unnecessary on its face. Notice also that Dürer depicts St. Jerome’s beard as “forked, ” which he does later again later in his career.

The reverse of the panel depicts an apocalyptic celestial phenomenon, a red star-like light and a streaking golden disc. Although some scholars have considered it to be an eclipse or meteor, it is almost certainly a comet.

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The 1496 copperplate engraving St. Jerome in the Wilderness

Next we have this copperplate engraving made in 1496. St. Jerome again is in the wilderness, his beard is not forked, the figure is very stiff although better fleshed out.  There appears to be a clue of a “C” in the upper right corner of the ledge and a backwards “B” that shows up in another print later in life. Dürer is giving us messages about who this St. Jerome is.

We will look at more of the St. Jerome images in Part 2.  More to Come.



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