I first came across this engraving in an exhibition of Dürer engravings in the Chester Beatty Library over a decade ago. In my completely uninformed way, what struck me most was the pleasingly cheerful sleeping lion, a contrast with the more famous apocalyptic engravings by the same artist of Melancholia, The Knight Death and The Devil, and of course The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
While it is a little dispiriting to see Dürer reduced to listicle format, the Mental Floss article linked to above is actually pretty informative:
There’s no evidence to suggest Dürer saw Saint Jerome in His Study, Melancholia I, and Knight, Death, and the Devil as companion pieces, but modern art experts group the works because of their technical similarities. Each was created from copper printing plates between 1513 and 1514. They are similar in size and use of contrast, and as you’d expect of pieces called Meisterstiche (or Master Engravings), each is densely detailed with an expert care.
12. JORGE LUIS BORGES PENNED TWO POEMS ABOUT THIS PIECE.
Named “Ritter, Tod, und Teufel” (I) and “Ritter, Tod und Teufel” (II), the first shows the Argentine author’s admiration for the knight’s bravery in the face of death and damnation, while the second reveals he can see himself in that very position.
I have never explored Borges’ poetry nearly as much as his prose. This page features English versions of these poems.
Anyway, back to St Jerome after this knight’s move. Usually the saint is shown in the more dramatic setting of the desert. As you can read in this piece:
If you spend any time in the great art museums of Europe you will see with surprising frequency a more or less stylized portrait of an emaciated monk in a wilderness den, often pummeling his body with a stone …
In nearly all the portraits, Jerome is depicted as a tormented ascetic, praying, with his four hallmarks somewhere on the canvas: a crucifix, a skull (symbolizing meditation on mortality), a recumbent lion (which Jerome reputedly befriended by extracting a thorn from its paw and which may symbolize the peaceable kingdom of Isaiah 11), and a red cardinal’s hat (symbolizing Jerome’s status, along with Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory the Great, as one of the four great doctors of the Latin church).
There is however a rich tradition of paintings of him in his study. The Christianity Today article linked to above acts as a good introduction to who St Jerome was and why, in the author’s view, he is especially relevant today (see my major caveat after the end of this passage):
The church’s debt to this brilliant, prolific, and influential scholar-monk is immense. Jerome was a thunderbolt, however, and conflict was a hallmark of his career. Indeed, he may have been one of those individuals who needed conflict in order to reach his zenith of his abilities.
What did the Renaissance find so appealing in Jerome? It was the conflict itself of a man who loved both the Christian faith and the pagan classics. Jerome had a terrifying dream of standing before Jesus Christ on judgment day and being rejected from salvation because of his love for the classics, and especially Cicero. Jerome’s intermittent and not entirely successful pursuit of the ascetic lifestyle was an attempt to purge the influence of paganism from his life. In its attempt to synthesize humanism and Christianity, the Renaissance found a mirror image in Jerome. The conflict of Christian versus classical, Trinitarian monotheism versus pagan polytheism that contended for the soul of Jerome also contended for the soul of Europe in the Renaissance.
There have been times when the Western church seemingly came close to resolving the conflict between the pagan and Christian. Dante’s synthesis of the classical and Christian worlds in The Divine Comedy was one instance, and the post-Reformation world of Protestant “state” churches was another.
The fitful romance between classical and Christian has never led to formal marriage, however, at least in the Latin West. The soul of the West continues to be nourished by the pagan and Christian, the Renaissance and (Counter) Reformation, but they stand in tension with one another. Go to Paris: in the Louvre you’ll feel the sensual attraction of paganism; in Notre Dame you’ll sense the spiritual attraction of Christianity.
In America the tension is present in other ways. The pagan current manifests itself in the ubiquitous temptation to put our ultimate trust in human idolatries such as advanced missile systems, the hegemony of athletics, or the lure of science as the arbiter of the only truth that matters. But a Christian and salvific current is present as well, as manifested in the ongoing debates over the meaning of the gospel for issues such as abortion, infanticide, torture, homosexuality, divorce, and utilitarian and militaristic ends of human life.
As long as we live in a fallen world a complete synthesis of gospel and culture will not be possible. Indeed, whenever it is attempted, the gospel is inevitably compromised. My own life repeatedly bears witness to the tension between the two worlds. Perhaps yours does too.
Ponder again the urbane scholar-monk in his wilderness den. A skull – our impending mortality; a docile lion – the majesty of the powerful and untamed in nature; the cardinal’s hat – a reminder of the ministry of the church in the world for good; and above all, the crucifix – the symbol of the redemptive suffering of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world. Jerome seems to be a necessary, if uncomfortable, icon for our own day.
While I don’t fully buy the idea that the gospel and culture (as opposed to, let’s say, worldliness, are in inherent tension – and one can feel a sensuality to the art of Notre Dame and a spirituality to the art of the Louvre), this is an interesting essay. Perhaps this engraving, while not as dramatic as the Desert Jerome, is in its way as counter cultural as Edwards suggests the more famous image is. Sitting in a study – with or without a sleeping lion – is its own form of contrariness in a distracted age.