Wednesday, June 4, 2008

St. Jerome in the Barberini Gallery

Today we visited the Barberini Gallery, one of the many important art galleries in Rome. The gallery has a number of important works including Holbein's Henery VIII, Caravaggio's Narcissus at the Source, Caravaggio's Judith Beheading Holofernes, and Rafael's La Fornarina. It was nice to see the Henry VIII painting and the Narcissus because both figures are referenced so often and the images are regularly recycled as academic book covers. Now, I will recognize them for having seen the original work, not just for having seen the image in multiple books.

Along with the more famous works, I found three images of St. Jerome the Penitent. St. Jerome spent a fair amount of time in Rome working to translate important Biblical texts for the church in the fourth century after death. His time in Rome may help explain his popularity as a topic for Italian Baroque and Renaissance painters. He is considered one of the most important translators of the early church. Although I cannot find anything saying this directly, I suspect that his title, the Penitent, is a reference to his ascetic lifestyle. In two of the paintings (Guercino and Tintorreto), he is depicted in his study with a crucifix. Many of the painters who have taken on Jerome as a subject place him in his study with a crucifix and a book of some kind. In Guercino's portrayal he is sealing an envelope. This is interesting because he was known for having outspoken and unconventional views on translations of important texts. Many of these views earned him enemies within the church. So, the act of mailing a letter was often controversial for St. Jerome. In the other painting (Muziano) he is standing, looking bashfully at a crucifix. In all of the paintings the crucifix is close at hand and he appears to be appropriately dedicated to his faith. In all of the paintings he looks to be humbled or in awe. I find this confusing given the controversial nature of many of his writings.

As a rhetorical scholar, I am excited to see a saint canonized for his intellectual contributions to the Catholic Church. I am also interested to see that he received the title the penitent. I had hoped that researching St. Jerome a little bit might shed some light on the history and nature of the sacrament of confession, but so far I have not found anything directly linking him with its development.

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