Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Communion of St Jerome by Domenichino

It is to be expected that the Renaissance would greatly admire the figure of St Jerome, second only to St Augustine as the most prolific writer among the Latin Fathers. Augustine himself describes Jerome as “learned in the Greek and Latin tongues, and furthermore in Hebrew,” and says that he had “read all those before him, or nearly all, who had written anything about the Church’s teaching in both parts of the world,” i.e., among the Greek or Latin writers. (Contra Julianum 1, 34) The scholars of the Renaissance prided themselves on their rediscovery of the classical world, and their return to the original sources of Greco-Roman culture. By learning Hebrew and producing a new and better Latin translation of the Bible, that which we now call the Vulgate, St Jerome had done what they themselves were doing, but with the very Word of God itself.

In the 15th century, which produced a great many images of St Jerome, he is often shown as a scholar in his study, sitting at a desk and surrounded by books. Since he had revised the Latin version of the Gospels at the behest of Pope St Damasus I, and served for a time as his secretary, he is traditionally depicted as a cardinal, which the contemporary Pope’s secretary would normally be. There are few episodes of what one might describe as a legendary character attached to him, but a famous one is the Christian version of the Androcles and the lion story, that while he was living in his monastery in Bethlehem, he removed a thorn from the paw of a lion, which henceforth became his pet. A lion is therefore usually shown in the study along with the Saint.

St Jerome in His Study, by Jan van Eyck, 1442 
A contrary trend, however, shows St Jerome as an ascetic and penitent, praying in the desert, as he did indeed spend much of his life as a monk in the deserts of the Holy Land. As evidenced by many of his writings, but especially by his fierce polemics against the errors of his times, Jerome was not the kind of man to do anything by halves; the apprehension of his character gave rise to the tradition by which he is shown beating his own breast with a rock as an act of penance. Pope Benedict XIV (1740-58) is said to have remarked on such a representation of the Saint, who also quarreled violently with several of his friends (including Augustine), “If it is true, that would be the only way you got into heaven.” The figure of Jerome the Ascetic corrects a tendency common among the learned men of the Renaissance, (Erasmus is a classic example), to disdain the Christian ideals of detachment and renunciation, a disdain which all too often degenerates into further disdain for “the ignorant”, and one’s fellow man generally.

St Jerome in the Wilderness, by Jacopo del Sellaio, later 15th century
Before the middle of the 16th-century, these two manners of representing St Jerome appear side by side, each with roughly the same frequency. In the Counter-Reformation, however, Jerome the Ascetic and Penitent comes to dominate almost completely. One of the most famous such paintings of the Roman Counter-Reformation is that of Domenico Zampieri, a painter from Bologna generally known by the nickname “Domenichino – Little Dominic.” After coming to Rome in 1602 at the age of twenty, and making a name for himself first as a student of Annibale Carracci, and then with various projects of his own, he was commissioned in 1614 to do his first altarpiece, for the church of San Girolamo della Carità, once the home of St Philip Neri. (“Girolamo” is Italian for “Jerome”.)

One of his contemporaries, Gian Pietro Bellori, described Domenichino’s Communion of St Jerome as follows: “Who could ever speak worthily and at great enough length of such a stupendous work, if one observes its drawing and expression? These are the parts that are unanimously considered the merits of Domenichino, over and above all other painters of this century.” He also reported that Nicholas Poussin, a much-esteemed French painter of the era who worked most of his life in Rome, “was ravished by its beauty, and used to set it beside Raphael’s Transfiguration… as the two greatest paintings that lend glory to the brush.” (Paintings in the Vatican, ed. Carlo Pietrangeli, p. 474) Another contemporary, Giovanni Lanfranco, famously accused Domenichino of plagiarizing the work from Agostino Caracci, a brother of his teacher, but was fiercely defended from this imputation by Bellori and Poussin among others.

The Communion of St Jerome, by Domenico Zampieri, 1614; now in the Painting Gallery of the Vatican Museums 
St Jerome was a figure at once important and difficult for the Protestant reformation. He was the only Father of the Church to whose authority the early Protestants could appeal in their rejection of the Deuterocanonical books of the Bible, (he is cited to this effect in the Articles of the Church of England), even though he himself did not hold his position against them consistently. John Calvin famously stated about St Augustine, “totus noster est – he belongs entirely to us”, (a typically gross exaggeration), and as noted above, Augustine praised Jerome as the most learned man of their age. But Jerome was also a fierce defender of many things rejected by the Protestants: devotion to the Saints and the cult of relics, the Papacy, asceticism and monasticism, celibacy and virginity.

In Domenichino’s painting, therefore, an exemplary work of the Counter-Reformation, Jerome the Ascetic comes entirely to the fore, and there is no trace of Jerome the Scholar. His open robes reveal the body of an elderly man emaciated by years of fasts and long vigils. The robes themselves are cardinalitial red, representing the highest institutions of governance in the Church. A woman kneeling down beside Jerome kisses his hand, venerating him as a Saint. He himself gazes in adoration at the Host of the Viaticum which he is about to receive; Domenichino emphasizes its importance by making the background immediately around it very dark, and having several of the lines in the painting converge upon it. The priest who administers the Host is holding it in the traditional Catholic manner, between his canonical digits, and under a paten.

The Catholicity, i.e., the universality, of the true Church founded by Christ is highlighted by the fact that the priest is assisted by a deacon in a Roman dalmatic (note the tassels on the back), and another wearing the crossed horarion and cuffs (called “epimanikia”) of the Byzantine tradition. St Jerome spent about 35 years of his life in Bethlehem, and died there on this day in the year 419; in his time, the city had Christian communities of both Latin and Greek speakers, especially after the sack of Rome in 410, when many Romans fled to the East. The Counter-Reformation often sought to proclaim, as it does here, the unified witness of East and West, the Latin Fathers and the Greek, against the theological innovations of the 16th century.

Finally, we may note the Angels in the upper right hand corner, watching the scene and ready to welcome the dying Saint into their company. They are shown as smiling children, the emissaries of a loving and benevolent God, unlike the deeply unpleasant deity of Calvin. They will soon bring St Jerome before the Lord, who will receive him with the words sung at the Benedictus in the Office of Confessors, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things; enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.”

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