Thursday, September 30, 2021

The Life of St Jerome, by Alessandro Allori

In 1577, the Florentine painter Alessandro Allori (1535-1607) was commissioned to decorate the ceiling of a chapel recently added by a nobleman named Niccolò Gaddi to the left transept of Santa Maria Novella, the principal Dominican church of their native city. Gaddi had studied Latin and Hebrew in his youth, and certainly chose to honor the great Doctor in this fashion particularly because he had given the Church the Latin translation of the Hebrew Bible which we now call the Vulgate. The central octagon of St Jerome in the Glory of Heaven is surrounded by eight episodes of his life, which are not arranged in chronological order; I shall therefore show them here starting from the one at the bottom of this photograph, and going counter-clockwise. The pendentive shields are filled with symbolic figures of the Virtues; the intrados is decorated with three more episodes from the end of the Saint’s life, and two more symbolic figures. (All images from Wikimedia Commons by Sailko, CC BY 3.0)
St Jerome served for a time as secretary to Pope St Damasus I (366-84), and is therefore traditionally represented as a cardinal, which the papal secretary normally would be from the Middle Ages on, although the cardinalate per se did not exist in his own time. Here he is represented very anachronistically receiving a red galero from the Pope at a consistory; the Pope is also dressed in the contemporary garb of his office in the later 16th century. – In Allori’s time, the prevalent artistic tendency was what we now call Mannerism, which emerged in the mid-16th century from a general feeling that Raphael (who died in 1520) and Michelangelo (who died in 1564) had effectively exhausted the Renaissance. The Mannerists’ habit was to break all the rules established by their Renaissance predecessors, particularly in regard to the proportions of the human form, which had been something of an obsession with earlier Florentine painters. Here we see the fruit of this in the excessively large figures at the two corners. (An art history professor of mine once described this habit of deliberately distorting proportions by saying, “The Mannerist has only one thought in his little head: ‘This is going to drive the ghost of Leonardo da Vinci up a tree!’ ”)

St Jerome the Penitent, the most common way of representing him in the Counter-Reformation. The torso here is modelled after that of a broken ancient sculpture (now in the Vatican Museums) known as the Belvedere Torso, which was the model for the most important figure of the last Renaissance painting, Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. This represents another important shift between the Renaissance and Mannerism; where the former sought to imitate the most beautiful things in nature, the latter sought to imitate the most beautiful things in art. The lion is a symbol of Jerome because of the story that the Saint had once healed a lion with a thorn in its paw.

In one of his most famous letters, St Jerome recounts that in his youth, during a severe illness, he was brought in a dream before the throne of God, who reproved him for his excessive devotion to the study of the great pagan authors like Virgil, Plautus, and above all Cicero. “Asked who and what I was, I replied, ‘I am a Christian’. But He who presided said, ‘Thou liest. Thou art a Ciceronian, and not a Christian.’ ” The Saint then made an oath to never again possess the books of the pagan authors, but nevertheless, continued to read and study them, and indeed, cite them in his works. This of course represents a long-standing tension among humanists throughout Europe, but especially in Gaddi and Allori’s native city of Florence, where many great scholars of the classics fell into severe excesses during the Renaissance.

The Baptism of St Jerome
St Jerome presents his Biblical translations to the Pope. While he was in Rome, he was in fact commissioned by Pope Damasus to revise the Latin text of the Gospels, but the rest of the Vulgate New Testament is not his work. It was not until Jerome had gone to the Holy Land and learned Hebrew from the local Jews that he translated those books of the Bible originally written in Hebrew (with the Deuterocanonical additions to Esther and Daniel), plus Tobias and Judith. (The Vulgate versions of Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch and the two books of Maccabees are also not his work.) – Note again the exceedingly large figures in the two lower corners. Mannerism is also a very busy style, as evidenced by the fact that there is a total of 13 figures in this fairly small painting. Nowadays, we tend to think of the Baroque style that came after it as a very busy one, but in point of fact, the artists of the Baroque generally reduce the number of figures in scenes like these, and thought of themselves as the creators of a much simpler and clearer style.
St Jerome in his study; the three figures at the front likely represent the Jewish teachers who helped him produce his Biblical translations. The one in the middle is also based on the Belvedere Torso. 
St Jerome among his disciples. For a long time, the Saint lived in the wilderness of the Holy Land, and had a fair number of other monks and hermits around him.
St Jerome and two of his female disciples. During his time in Rome, he had been the spiritual director of a number of women (a fact which which attracted rather a lot of gossip), some of whom remained very devoted to him long after his departure from the city. (The letter cited above was addressed to one of these, a girl named Eustochium.) – Many Mannerists had the bad habit of creating painting cycles with lots of stories that were not easily identifiable to the ordinary viewer; here, we have no way of telling which of St Jerome’s disciples these actually are. One of the other virtues of the Baroque was an insistence, in obedience to the dictates of the Council of Trent, that art in churches must be clear in its storytelling.
On the intrados, St Jerome appears to St Augustine in a vision; the two never met in real life, but they exchanged several letters on theological questions.

The Saint receives Viaticum on his deathbed.
The local monks carry his body to his funeral service.
In the center of the ceiling, St Jerome in the Glory of Heaven. (Note here the excessive busyness of the framing, a feature which the Baroque will as a general rule not tone down.) 
The pendentive shields at the corners: the virtues of Poverty, in dark dress with a hole in the knee, Obedience, holding the tiara and keys of the Papacy, and Chastity, wearing white and with the head of a unicorn in her lap.

The Theological Virtues: Charity, represented as a woman nursing a child at both breasts, Faith, with a cross and a chalice, looking up to God, and Hope, traditionally dressed in green, also looking up to God.

Mannerist obscurity at its best: which virtues are these?
The Cardinal Virtues: Temperance, who is diluting wine with water; Justice, with a sword; Prudence, with a mirror; and Fortitude, with a club in her hand and a subdued lion at her feet.

On the intrados, a symbolic figure of Contemplation, who sits in a natural landscape looking up towards God, dressed simply, barefoot, and having nothing with her other than a book...

contrasted with Vanity, who is indoors, richly dressed and coifed, and looking at herself in a mirror.

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