St. Jerome in His Study
Painted in his signature style of dispassionate realism, Van Cleve's Jerome is seated in his study, surrounded by items that symbolize his important position in the Catholic Church. One of the four 'Fathers' of the early Roman Church, Jerome was exceptionally learned and perhaps the greatest of the Church Doctors. His translation and revision of the Latin New Testament and his version of the Old Testament became the standard text of the Bible in Western Europe. Jerome was admired for his knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, and was an active participant in the politics of the Church during his lifetime. By placing Jerome in a study setting, Van Cleve was following the established convention portraying Jerome as the archetypal scholar. The various objects placed in proximity to Jerome were common symbols, each with recognizable significance. The skull represents the seat of thought, and also symbolized spiritual perfection. Death of the physical body (symbolized by the skull) enabled one to be reborn at a higher level at which the spirit could rule. The spectacles, designed to refine and sharpen the power of the eyes, signified the role Jerome played for the Church: through his work, the word of God was clarified and refined into a truer form. The candle was commonly included in works of art as a manifestation of spiritual illumination. The light from the candle alludes to the light of God. Perhaps the most appropriate symbol for Jerome is that of the book which lies open on the table. Symbolizing knowledge and wisdom, the two traits for which Jerome was most admired, the fact that the book lies open indicates that the mysteries of the universe could be understood by Jerome. Interestingly enough, an open book also indicated the exposure of thoughts and feelings, and Jerome was known to be quite outspoken about his religious beliefs and opinions.
The bird was often the symbol of heaven and spiritual states. It is caged to represent the soul caged within the mortal body. The bird can also be negative, symbolizing the inconstancy of the human imagination, distraction, and diversion. Perhaps that is why the bird is depicted in a cage, to indicate that Jerome had the ability to focus his imagination and to control the human tendency to stray from purely spiritual activities. The wash basin and white towel represent the act of washing prior to ritual or sacrifice, water cleanses, stimulates, and heals. They are also reminiscent of baptism. The lion was associated with Jerome, and one is depicted outside the window. Lions also had many symbolic meanings, mostly to do with Christ, but also representing power, wisdom, justice, and mental holiness. in addition, the lion had negative connotations, such as pride and ferocity, which Jerome overcame when he tamed the lion.
Finally, Jerome's cardinal's hat, one of his most common attributes, sits atop the table as a reminder of his high rank within the church.
Researched by Emily Roberts, a major in the Medieval and Renaissance Studies Program.
The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, ed. Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant