Saint Jerome: The Iconography
SEPTEMBER 30

St. Jerome was born in Dalmatia but in his teen years moved to Rome, where he was baptized a Christian and embarked on a lifetime of studying the scriptures and pursuing an ascetic lifestyle. He eventually became an adviser to Pope Damasus I. When the pope died Jerome relocated to Palestine, living again as an ascetic and a scholar. With funding from his friend St. Paula he established monasteries there for men and women, but he lived alone in a cell in Bethlehem, where he pursued his work on the scriptures.

In Rome he had already prepared a translation of the New Testament from Greek into Latin; he continued this work in Bethlehem, translating most of the Old Testament into Latin from Hebrew. Together, these translations became known as the Vulgate, the official Bible of the Roman church. He also produced a vast collection of commentaries, treatises, and polemics that had a great influence on Christian theology (Butler III, 686-693).

Medieval and Renaissance images of St. Jerome derive their iconography from the Golden Legend or its sources.

JEROME'S VISIONS

The first episode in the Legend's life of St. Jerome recounts a vision of his in which he was scourged in Heaven for retaining his books of classical literature. Upon awakening, he saw the marks of the scourge on his shoulders. Thus some images feature his beaten back (example) or show angels whipping him (example).

In another vision, not included in the Golden Legend but frequently represented in 17th-century images, Jerome hears the angel on a cloud trumpeting the Last Judgment (example), or just a trumpet issuing from a cloud (example). The ultimate textual source for this iconographic type is an admonition in the Regula Monachorum published in 1429 but ascribed to Jerome: Semper tuba illa terribilis vestris perstrepat auribus: Surgite mortui, venite ad judicium (Migne XXX, 387: "Always the terrible trumpet sounds in your ears, saying 'Arise, ye dead, and come to your judgment!'"). Some 15th-century portraits had Jerome holding a book with parts of this quotation presented as if it was Jerome who was being admonished. Later portraits made the leap to showing the angels trumpeting to the saint (Worcester Art Museum, 5-6).

DRESSED AS A CARDINAL

In the next episode the Legend reports, incorrectly, that St. Jerome was "ordained a cardinal-priest in Rome" (Ryan II, 212). Because of this report, he is almost always dressed as a cardinal with a red cape and a red flat-top cardinal's hat (example) though these are sometimes set aside as a token of humility and of his having left Rome and its temptations behind, as in the third image at right. In fact, the title of Cardinal did not exist until some decades after Jerome's death; the cardinal's garb refers rather to the saint's service as an advisor to Pope Damasus I.1

BEATING HIS BREAST

The next episode in the Legend tells of the four years St. Jerome spent in the desert, where he prayed and fasted to still his sexual desires.2 This part of his life is popular in the art, where he is commonly shown holding a stone used for beating his bare breast (example). One such image shows him in a ruined apse with a crudely mounted miniature church bell. The "scorpions and wild beasts" the Legend says were his company are represented at least once, in a relief in Trogir, Croatia.

In paintings of this type Jerome is often shown contemplating a crucifix while beating his breast (example). In an extension of this type of image, he can also be shown standing at the Crucifixion itself, with bare breast and stone in hand (example).

WORKING IN HIS STUDY

Next in the Legend, we read of St. Jerome's long sojourn in Bethlehem, where he studied scripture and completed his translation of the Bible into Latin.  This part of the saint's life is represented in the many images that show him in his study with his books. The second image at right exemplifies one subtype, where the saint's eyes engage the viewers as he points to a skull. Other examples of this subtype place the words cogita mori ("think of your death") somewhere in the image.

The image at right also typifies the objects commonly included in Jerome's study: a crucifix, red garments and hat, a book, writing implements, a candle, and (beginning in the 15th century) eyeglasses. The candle and spectacles refer a remark in one of Jerome's commentaries:
My eyes are growing dim with age and to some extent I share the suffering of the saintly Isaac: I am quite unable to go through the Hebrew books with such light as I have at night, for even in the full light of day they are hidden from my eyes owing to the smallness of the letters. In fact, it is only the voice of the brethren which enables me to master the commentaries of Greek writers
– Preface to book VII of the Commentary on Ezechiel.3
In some images one or two angels have visited the study to help Jerome with his commentaries (example). In some cases where he is shown writing a dove will be seen whispering in his ear.4

WITH SS. PAULA AND EUSTOCHIUM

Another aspect of St. Jerome's years in Bethlehem was his promotion of the dedicated life for Christian virgins and his correspondence with a number of these, especially Saints Paula and Eustochium, to whom many of his letters were addressed.  A painting by Francisco de Zurbarán shows him in conversation with these two women.

THE LION

The Legend then turns to the story of St. Jerome's pulling a thorn from a lion's paw (as in Riemenschneider's sculpture).  In gratitude the lion is said to have become a sort of lay brother in Jerome's monastery, doing chores and guarding the monastic donkey.  The lion is as common an attribute of the saint as his red cardinal's garb, as in the first image at right and most of those referred to above.

OTHER ATTRIBUTES

In many paintings and sculptures Jerome cradles a maquette of a church. Usually the church has a basilical shape, with a tower beyond the apse end (example). A maquette usually denotes that the bearer was responsible for the building of a specific church or monastery. In Jerome's case, this would probably be the monasteries that he founded at Bethlehem.

Prayer beads are also often included (example). Portraits often show him with a book, for obvious reasons.

In most of the images linked above, the beard is shown the same way, reaching to mid-chest or a bit higher, and about as broad as his face. It is rarely forked.

RECEIVING COMMUNION FOR THE LAST TIME

Late medieval images of Saint Jerome's death often show him kneeling to receive the eucharistic host for the last time (example). This detail traces to a 12th-century work purporting to be a letter sent to the Pope by a friend who was with Jerome when he died. The importance of the detail is enhanced by the saint's words when he rose from his deathbed and knelt before the host: "Lord, who am I that I should be worthy for you to enter under my roof? … Why do you lower yourself and suffer to descend to a publican and a sinner?"5 The letter apparently was unknown to Voragine, who says nothing about Jerome's death in the Golden Legend in the 13th century, but thereafter it was widely circulated both in Latin and in many vernacular languages (Enluminures).

OTHER IMAGES (Thumbnails – click for full image and description)

El Greco's portrait of Jerome


Slingelandt, St. Jerome at Prayer in a Cave


Jerome in a Sacra Conversazione, 16th century

Prepared in 2014 at Georgia Regents University by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English

HOME PAGE

St. Jerome dressed as a cardinal and carrying a book and a maquette of a church (See description page)

St. Jerome in his study (See description page)

As a penitent in the desert (See complete image at the description page)

DATES

  • Born ca. 342, died 420 (Butler III, 686); but medieval sources always say he died at age 90 or later.

HAGIOGRAPHY

NOTES

1 Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. "Cardinal." Molanus, III, 360.

2 The passage in the Legend closely follows paragraph 7 of Letter 22, to Eustochium, in Schaff, series 2, vol. 6: "Now, although in my fear of hell I had consigned myself to this prison, where I had no companions but scorpions and wild beasts, I often found myself amid bevies of girls. My face was pale and my frame chilled with fasting; yet my mind was burning with desire, and the fires of lust kept bubbling up before me when my flesh was as good as dead.… I remember how I often cried aloud all night till the break of day and ceased not from beating my breast till tranquillity returned at the chiding of the Lord."

3 Ibid.

4 An example from MS. Cambridge Corpus Christi College, 389, 1v is published in Rushforth, 43.

5 Translated from chapter XLV of Migne, Eusebius de Morte Hieronymi, XXII, 270. The real author is unknown; the purported author is Eusebius of Cremona, an associate of Jerome who the letter claims was his successor as leader of the monastery. The passage does not seem to have been put into English anywhere else, so I offer this translation: "Then a certain brother came to the place with the most holy body of Jesus Christ. When the man of God was able to see it, we helped him prostrate himself prone on the ground, and with what voice and tears he still had he cried, "Lord, who am I, that I should be worthy that you enter under my roof? Does this sinful man have any merit? Surely, Lord, I am not worthy. Am I better than all my fathers? You did not deign to show Moses even a glimpse. Why now do you lower yourself and suffer to descend to a publican and a sinner? And not only do you desire for this sinner to eat, but that you be eaten by him."