Saint Jerome (c347 Ė 420)
was a priest and theologian whose image became one of the most
familiar in Christian art.
Iím not intending to offer
any more than an abbreviated biography here. There are plenty to be found
on the internet: the Wikipedia entry is excellent. So here is Jerome in a
few hundred words.
My source for details of his life was Jerome: his life, writings and
controversies by J N D Kelly, an excellent and balanced account, now
sadly out of print.
Jerome (Hieronymus in Latin, Girolamo in Italian) Was born in Stridon, (location uncertain but probably
near modern day Ljubljana
in Slovenia). As a young man he headed to Rome to study Latin and Greek.
Here, it seems, he behaved like most students do down to the present day;
unlike most students, however, he spent the rest of his life anguishing
There followed a period of
travel and study, first to Trier (now in Germany) and then to Aquila in
Around 373 he headed for
Antioch in Syria, staying for a while with his close friend Evagrius. He spent part of his time
in Syria in a remote desert region, living
the life of a hermit; this features in many paintings.
Following ordination in
Antioch he headed for Constantinople to pursue his studies there. In 382
he returned to Rome and became secretary to Pope Damasus the First. Here he
began the work for which he is mainly known, the translation of the Bible
into Latin, known as the Vulgate.
It seems he had hopes of
succeeding Damasus as Pope, but he was not a popular figure in Rome, and
eventually left the city under a cloud of official disapproval and almost certainly maliciously
In 385 he returned to Antioch, from where he travelled as far as
Alexandria. By 388 he was established in a monastery in Bethlehem, where
he remained for the rest of his life.
For Jerome, making friends was difficult, making enemies all too easy.
There is little doubt that as far the ascetic life is concerned, he
practised what he preached; unfortunately, his way of life was not
accompanied by any noticeable degree of humility. He had a large ego, and did not suffer fools (or
anyone that disagreed with him) gladly. He was forthright in his
promotion of chastity, but when this lead to remarks such as
'a widow who remarries is like a dog returning to its own vomit', one can
see that tact was not his strong point.
In later years a feud developed between Jerome and an old friend
from his student days, Rufinus. It started with a disagreement over interpretations of writings by Origen, an early Christian scholar from
Alexandria that Jerome was quite keen on at first, then rejected when
everyone else did. All very nit-picking and arcane. Jerome's language to
Rufinus was, well, to the point: 'that dumb but poisonous animal . . .
destined to perish in his own pus.' (this because Rufinus had the temerity to criticise his commentary on the Book of Daniel.) 'You distil from the dunghill of your
breast at once the scent of roses and the stench of rotting corpses . . .'
Jerome also called him a 'grunting pig' and told the world how pleased he was
when he heard he was dead. Not very saintly, then.
Jerome is not counted an original scholar, but his
translations were ahead of his time: his version of the Bible in Latin caused outrage
in his lifetime, but
later became the standard version, for the Catholic church at least.
His view was that the language of the Bible should not just be accurate,
it should have nobility; it can thus be regarded as a forerunner of the King James
Bible. For this, let us forgive all his sins.
Unlike biblical events, we have first-hand accounts of the
life of Jerome, mainly from Jerome himself, whose letters contained much
biographical material. As suggested above, Jerome was a voluminous and combative letter
writer, and the hearts of many must have sunk when one of them dropped
through their front door. All of Jerome's writings are available in
translation on the Internet.
The Golden Legend contains an
account of the life of Jerome which is woefully inaccurate, but which is
valuable for its detailed though entirely mythical account of Jeromeís lion. There are also various apocryphal texts used
by artists that are mentioned on the appropriate page.
As to modern sources, the Kelly book mentioned above is
excellent. For background detail on the development of Christianity and
the theological disputes of the time Diarmaid MacCulloch's A History of
Christianity is unbeatable.
Jerome in art
The two most popular depictions of Jerome are as a studious scholar
working away in his study, and as a penitent hermit in the desert. Visions
or dreams, some mentioned in his own writings and some attributed to him,
are a third theme. Later counter-reformation paintings underline his
position as translator of the Vulgate, and attempt to demonstrate that
this was directly inspired by God.
There are many altarpieces that feature Jerome as one of a group of
saints, sometimes in a 'sacra conversazione' with the Virgin. These
may reflect the dedication of the host church, or may have been
commissioned for a church of one of the Hieronymite orders. Some earlier paintings
relate the life of Jerome; these are mainly drawn from the Golden