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|
|St Jerome in the Wilderness, by Jacopo del Sellaio, later 15th century|
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|
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.”