The engraving shows the single figure of Saint Jerome, translator of the Bible into Latin, deep in his transcription at his writing desk. In so many of Dürer’s other works, the religious or moral action is presented to us with the help of other figures – in the engravings of the Book of Revelation, for example, St John devours the Book as the face of the divine light looks down on him and a supporting cast of angels fills the sky.
Here, illumination comes simply from the leaded glass above the saint’s desk, lighting up his halo and drawing our attention to the memento mori skull on the window ledge. Perhaps the most intriguing feature of the composition is our point of sight – though the perspective of the room does not quite bear this out, we feel almost as if we are peeking in at the man at work, keen not to disturb his thoughts.
This was not the first time that Dürer had depicted the saint. His engraving of St Jerome the Penitent in the Wilderness dates from some 15 years previously - when Dürer’s own journeys were far from over - and shows a figure, true to legend, in the rocky and barren wastes, albeit in a distinctly northern European landscape. In the later engraving, the saint’s wandering years are behind him, and he has returned to his life’s work and his masterpiece.
Many critics have seen the image as one of a three-part group, along with the “Knight, Death and the Devil” (“Ritter, Tod und Teufel”) and his equally famous “Melencolia”. On one analysis, these three ‘master engravings’, or ‘Meisterstiche’, are said to represent three different fields of human endeavour: an active life in the world around us, an immersion in scientific study and the imagination, and the religious or contemplative life.
Such a programmatic reading of the three works arguably poses more problems than it solves. However, all three can be seen as a reflection of a wider question of the age: the right pursuit of achievement in this world and the application of our unique human gifts, both in the here-and-now and to the realms of mind and spirit.
The engraving is full of references to the legends and attributes of Saint Jerome, which would have made the figure seem even more familiar to 16th century viewers. He was popularly, if anachronistically, represented as a cardinal, so his distinctive cardinal’s hat is on its peg.
The hourglass may well carry an obvious metaphorical message, but along with letters, scissors, pots, candles and some weighty books, it also reads simply as part of a comfortable and well-stocked study. And the saint’s lion, which was in the wilderness with him 15 years ago, is here again, snoozing like a domestic pet alongside the faithful dog that guards Jerome’s slippers: a fantastical but somehow familiar and plausible detail.
Jerome’s reputation as one of the founders of the Early Church rested largely on his translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible, correcting and revising errors in previous versions and in traditions of interpretation. The example of this work would take on a new currency within years of the engraving being published, when Martin Luther began his work on a German-language Bible which would seek to correct the misreadings of Catholic doctrine. Jerome’s legacy was to become an even more vigorously disputed one.