San Girolamo (Saint Jerome) is the Doctor of the Church to whom we owe the first Latin translation of the entire Bible (Vulgate). He gets usually represented in the act of writing, in front of a desk surrounded by books. Scholars have often noticed in this table that San Girolamo does not have any typical element in representing a Saint. The traditional halo is the first visible lack.
Compared with the same subject in the painting of his master, Colantonio, it is clear that Antonello da Messina had the firm intention to represent something different. This Saint Jerome looks to us as a scholar of his time, contributing to a new, lay iconography for humanist intellectuals. Another proof of this evolving sensibility is the contemporary production of portraits of the Lords of the time, as in the case of Federico da Montefeltro by Pedro Berruguete, who captures him immersed in the reading of a volume, as a true intellectual.

Image courtesy of The National Gallery – London, via Wikimedia / Public Domain.

But looking carefully at this painting, it is possible to recognize the saint and even confirm St. Jerome’s identity: behind his figure, on the bench, appears the red cardinal’s hat, while on the right, in the shadows, a lion is approaching. The lion has always accompanied the Saint’s representations because Jerome saved a wounded lion during his hermitage in the desert, and from that moment, the animal became his faithful companion.
Another clue associated with the traditional iconography is the crucifix: Antonello used all his skills to paint it at the brush’s tip in a perfect profile perspective, visible on the library’s top left.

The scene’s setting is also curious: the architectural interior looks in all respects like a church with vaults, capitals, and mullioned windows. But there is a wooden structure dedicated to the study in the center, with shelves full of books, a desk, and seating, which may underline how this Saint, inside the Catholic Church, dedicated himself to prayer through reason, the main virtue of the humanist era.

Finally, to conclude the iconography on the threshold of the portal that introduces us to the scene, we see two birds: the partridge and the peacock. The peacock is a symbol used since the early Christians for Christ’s representation because it personified the virtues of immortality, kingship, and eternal glory. The partridge instead is an animal linked to the specific iconography of St. Jerome. In fact, in one of his writings, the Doctor of the Church uses the partridge and its habits of hatching other birds’ eggs, as an allegory for all the fools who accumulate riches unjustly and vainly.

The oeuvre also contains a detail related to its author: Antonello was an artist in love with his hometown in Sicily’s Northeast corner, Messina. He gave up his brilliant career in the Veneto region and returned to Sicily. His city’s constant nostalgia is present in many works, which often show the Strait and Messina harbor in the background. Within this work, scholars have identified a panorama of Monte Santo di Camaro, a Messina’s stream and neighborhood. This is the glimpse that can be seen beyond the left window, in the table’s background, where the hills’ gentle curves still overlap Messina’s current landscape.

St. Jerome reading in his studio, painted by Antonello da Messina, 1475 ca.
Images courtesy of The National Gallery – London, via Wikimedia / Public Domain.