Jerome in Life, Text, and Art

Since it is International Translation Day today, the Paris Review joins in the global festivities with an engaging consideration by Damion Searls of the great father of translation, St. Jerome himself.

Jerome’s skills and opinions in the field of biblical translation have long been known, but he was also a polemicist (he described the heretic Pelagius as “a very stupid dolt weighed down with Scottish porridge.”) and figure head of a growing cult of personality that blossomed during the Renaissance.

He was born in 331 or 347 in the town of Stridon, possibly in what’s now northwest Croatia; its only mention in history is Jerome’s comment that he was born “in the town of Stridon, now destroyed by the Goths.” He was also by far the crabbiest of the Church Fathers, as befits a man who earned sainthood by scholarship and rigorous asceticism, not working with people. As important a theological polemicist as he was a translator, he fired off letter after letter, volume after volume, from his library in Palestine, written in elegant classical Latin studded with choice insults. To someone who questioned his translations, he countered: “What men like you call fidelity in transcription, the learnèd term pestilent minuteness”; a heretic, Pelagius, was “a very stupid dolt weighed down with Scottish porridge.”

Yet strangely, Jerome is also one of the most admired saints, even most loved. Maybe it’s not so strange, given the overlap between antisocial scholars and reputation-makers. Three early fourteenth-century forgeries purporting to be by Jerome’s disciples and colleagues, describing his last hours, death, and numerous miracles, were runaway hits in the original Latin and, appropriately, in Tuscan, Sicilian, German, Dutch, French, Spanish, Catalan, Danish, and English translation. (Some four hundred manuscripts and thirty-six printed editions are known before 1501.) By the early Renaissance, Jerome was the object of widespread popular devotion, speeches every September 30 giving thanks for miracles, and the adoration of his brother and sister scholars.

In art, St. Jerome became the most popular theme in Renaissance Christian painting after the Annunciation. He was usually shown with a book or two, his red cardinal’s hat, and a lion, because when a lion limped into his monastery courtyard and the other monks fled, Jerome welcomed the beast and called back his brothers to wash and treat its injured paw. They took out the thorns and tamed the lion. (This is an old story, one of Aesop’s fables and probably mis-assigned to Jerome—in Latin: Hieronymus—from the life of the similar-sounding St. Gerasimus.)

Italian artists invented another, even more popular motif around 1400: Jerome penitent in the wilderness, beating his ascetic breast with a stone. This allowed Christian painters to glorify the male near-nude, as they often did with St. Sebastian; and the wilderness setting, along with Jerome’s passing mention of “having nothing but scorpions and wild animals for company” in the desert, let painters indulge in naturalistic portrayals of animals: not just lion, but badger, cheetah, otter, squirrel, goldfinch, heron (three kinds), partridge, snake, snail … One zoologist/art historian has identified sixty-five kinds of animal in Renaissance paintings of Jerome, not counting the imaginary dragon, harpy, and unicorn, and the humdrum, “plot point” animals: camel, donkey, sheep.

Read the rest here, including a bit about Jerome’s insistence on a high Mariology.