Saint Jerome sans Lion; De La Tour’s Reimagination of your Favorite Saintly Zaddy
Of all the myriad portraits of St. Jerome, from skin and bones wildman with body-length beard to scholar surrounded by veritas, lion purring at his feet, this is the St. Jerome I find to be most interesting: a depiction by Georges de La Tour that strips Jerome of his usual tropes and, in doing so, says twice as much as his maximalist peers.
I think I ought to give a little context on portraits of Jerome since La Tour’s version is so subversive of the Jerome genre in Renaissance/Baroque art. Jerome is a Christian saint known, like most saints, for his philandering and carefree sinning followed by a sudden and passionate conversion and then, in turn, a long period of penitence. Jerome’s penitence was spent in the desert wilderness where he lived in a cave and contemplated death, the meaninglessness of embodied life, and possibly Marx. He is also known to have befriended a lion by pulling a thorn from its foot. During this time, he started prolifically writing theological treatises which gained widespread popularity and he translated the Hebrew bible into Vulgar Latin. Later in life, off the back of his scholarly work, he became a cardinal at the Vatican. This should be enough info for one to notice recurring motifs in depictions of Jerome:
Jerome is really more of a character in art than anywhere else. Because I studied hermits for some time I was acquainted with Jerome before becoming fascinated with visual art. But, even then I considered him one of the lesser desert saints. In the art world, on the other hand, trust me, once you see one Jerome, like listening for the drone of highways and airplanes, you will find them to be absolutely everywhere. As such, there is an unwieldly katamari of vocabulary in typical Jerome paintings and De La Tour, by casting away all the surplus, delivers a pretty much perfect portrait. The top middle picture above is actually a De La Tour Jerome hanging in Sweden.
Here we see him as an old man, typical, in a cave, obvious, beside an open book and skull, universal, and partly covered by cardinal’s robes, naturally. Although his penitence is a bit brasher and more violent than usual, the tail of a bloody cord, eyes transfixed on the symbol of Christian suffering, there is a ton of precedence for the depiction. However, for our cardinal at the top of the page, there is basically nil. This is a new Jerome. Older and wiser. And yet, all the vocabulary of Jerome that has been built through a complex and stale symbology over the years is retained in the De La Tour without any of the exhausting excess.
First, let’s admire the impeccable composition of the piece. Jerome’s square head and shoulders are large in the center foreground, taking up much of the canvas, giving him a sense of heft and grandeur. The center of the canvas is cut by a single line crawling from the bottom of his shawl up through the creases in the letter and arriving between his eyes. The line is intersected by the top of the letter, suggesting a cross. The boxiness and linearity of the bottom two thirds of the painting are relieved by the oblique light hitting Jerome’s bare head and the fogginess behind. The painting overall feels solemn and serious, dominated by Jerome and the subtle suggestions of divinity without any of the pyrotechnics of other depictions.
Also unlike other depictions, there is nothing feeble about this Jerome. He is hale and strong, full-bodied, his beard likewise kempt and squared off suggesting a masculine jaw. His hands are meaty and youthful, different in every way from the veiny, wood-like hands of other depictions including De La Tour’s own. Jerome is no penitent here, he is beyond the starving of his body, he wears his robes without ostentation (the sexy folds and contours and shadows that prove the skill of other artists are absent here). This Jerome, in stature and grandeur, resembles more Odysseus than the frail saint of hagiography.
Despite his healthy appearance and strength, De La Tour’s Jerome still holds the essence of Jerome in other prototypical paintings. For one, there is still rejection, though not mortification, of the body. Despite his size and vivacity, the La Tour Jerome stoops his head and deigns to use a miniscule pair of spectacles for reading the letter in his hand. This posture, as well as the reliance on diminutive instruments, belies his physical presence. Other masculine heroes would look up, but instead Jerome looks down, away from the world and toward the cross superimposed on the letter. This Jerome is the ultimate penitent, the ultimate scholar, and the ultimate hermit, shunning the material world and his own material body in pursuit of the Christian God through theology.
Look at the symbolism of De La Tour’s wizened Jerome, the penitent in the cave — a symbolism shared with countless other depictions — and ask yourself: is this all really necessary? The vivacious Jerome is divine without needing a wooden cross, penitent without needing a whip, scholarly without needing tomes and a desk, kindly without needing a lion, a hermit without needing a cave. De La Tour’s depiction is clean and effective and far more intriguing than any painter that paints a Saint based only on shared vocabulary pulled from apocryphal hagiography. Above all, De La Tour’s Jerome is human.
But, is he communist? Although Jerome is often depicted wearing or surrounded by red robes, I’m sorry to say that these are, in fact, garbs traditionally worn by Cardinals; and so I think the more proper question to ask is, Is the Catholic church communist?