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An Analysis on Antonello da Messina's St. Jerome in His Study

St. Jerome in His Study (ca.1475) by Antonello da Messina inspired me in composing the elements and building the concept of my latest painting. Reading things about this magnificent painting immediately urged me to write something about the work. In fact, I did not plan it as such a long article in the beginning, but I found myself doing an iconographical analysis of the work as I dove into its exquisite depths and was thrilled by every single detail of it. The masterpiece (today in National Gallery, London) has a theme that was commonly dealt with by the painters of the time. However, Antonello’s unusual way of conveying the theme [1] and the shocking fact that he fit this extraordinarily detailed scene into an astoundingly small size (46 x 37 cm) make, I believe, the work different especially from other Jerome depictions of its time. In many Jerome depictions, we generally see a closer compositional frame and more claustrophobic space, and there the scholar is hemmed in by the books and objects that identify him [2]. What makes Antonello’s St. Jerome so impressive and distinctive, to me, is that he conveyed Saint Jerome’s portrayal through a masterfully composed architectural arrangement. We see that Antonello employed the tiles on the floor to create the perspective distance in the painting, which was a means frequently used in the Renaissance. However, by placing the saint reading in his study carrel right in the middle of the composition where the perspective lines of the tiles ought to have been running toward their meeting point, the artist made him the focal point of the painting with a distinctive manner [3]. It seems as if Antonello does not want us to disturb him while reading. He, in all seriousness, focuses on the Holy Scripture in his hands, and it is as if Antonello bestows privilege us, the viewers, on entering his study and witnessing his contemplation.

Antonello da Messina, St. Jerome in His Study,

Oil on wood, 46 x 37 cm, National Gallery, London

So, before starting the iconographical analysis of the painting, I would like to mention Saint Jerome and his importance to the world of Christianity briefly. After Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the Church was in need of an official Latin Bible and Jerome was commissioned by Pope Damascus I to make a revision of the old translations. Jerome who lived between the years 347?-420 [4] translated Old and New Testaments into Latin. The Latin Bible, also known as the Vulgate, was widely adapted by the Church for over a thousand years and the Council of Trent declared the Vulgate to be the only authentic Latin translation of the Scriptures in 1546 [5]. With a desire for withdrawal from worldly pleasures, Jerome left Rome to follow an ascetic life in 385 and, after visiting Antioch, the Holy Land and Alexandria he settled in Bethlehem in the autumn of 386, where he established a Latin monastery and a convent for women and lived until his death [6]. In his writings, letters and commentaries, Jerome points out withdrawal from all the earthly pleasures and allurements, and devotion to an ascetic life. In his spiritual instructions for upper-class women who had taken a vow of virginity and devoted themselves to Jesus, he preached a moral and pure life. In the paintings of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Saint Jerome is mostly depicted in a red cardinal robe, and we see his hat positioned on the floor or standing on a rock or lectern. Although this is sometimes seen as a token of humility and of his having left Rome and its temptations behind, the title, in fact, did not exist during his lifetime [7]. But this is a tribute to his importance in the ecclesiastical hierarchy due to his services as an advisor to Pope Damascus I as well as their close friendship.

Antonello da Messina’s Saint Jerome in His Study is filled with numerous objects, many of which may be read through more than one perspective within the fifteenth century, and because of their relations with each other and their arrangement in the composition, these elements surrounding Saint Jerome urge the viewer to seek iconographical meanings in the painting. The unusual and artificial nature of the objects, each of which looks shockingly natural and meaningful in its own right, makes this iconographical analysis intricate and arduous. Therefore P. H. Jolly offers fundamental controlling factors to be taken as references in the interpretation of these disguised symbols, and these are the geometric structure of the painting which allows the symbols to be read both vertically and horizontally, Mariological elements in the fifteenth-century Annunciation paintings and finally, the imagery of Epistle 22, a letter written by Jerome to Eustochium, one of his female disciples, in honor of her vow of virginity [8].

In Epistle 22 written in Rome in 384, Jerome describes how she should live her life to become the Bride of Christ and to earn Salvation by pointing the Blessed Virgin Mary as a model of perfection. Throughout the letter frequently quoted from the Bible, Jerome counsels Eustochium an ascetic manner of life and isolation and mortification in the wilderness, and praises abstinence and chastity [9]. To Jerome, all Eustochium has to do for Salvation is to trace the Virgin Mary’s steps and to be exactly like her.

It is remarkable that the objects surrounding the saint in the painting such as pyxes and a stoppered clear-glass carafe on the shelves and the potted carnations at Jerome’s feet are also the objects surrounding the Virgin Mary in Annunciation paintings of the fifteenth century (see, for example, Image 1, Image 2 and Image 3). The oval pyxes make reference to Mary’s womb where the body of Christ was held while the stoppered, clear-glass carafe refers to the untouched state of her virginity. Potted carnations are Antonello’s means to demonstrate the commitment to Christ which is necessary for Salvation, and the potted tree next to the carnations is a miniature version of the “garden enclosed” of virginity [10]. Epistle 22 opens with a quotation from Psalm 45:10: “Hear, O daughter, and consider, and incline your ear” [11]. According to a Marian reading, this passage refers to a type of the Annunciation since “incline your ear” is interpreted as a statement that the Virgin Mary did not conceive her royal son, Christ, through her womb, but through her ear. We see, therefore, that Antonello intended to convey the parallel between Eustochium and the Virgin Mary by using the elements of the Annunciation depictions.

We observe that the scholar’s carrel is bathed in light which enters into the picture from the large, stone doorway in the foreground and illuminates the right side of the painting while the left side in the middle ground is darkened. Using the light as well as the windows in the background through which we see a landscape, the artist seems to accentuate the distinction between the right side that is believed to contain all good things and left side referring to the bad, which I will discuss later in detail. In the shadowed area in the left, we see a soiled towel and an unlit hanging lamp along with a sleeping cat beneath them. The image of towel in the fifteenth-century Annunciation depictions is stainless and untouched which, as might be expected, symbolizes Mary’s pure virginity. However we see that Antonello purposefully depicts it soiled and impure. The unlit hanging lamp [12] is a direct reference to the parable of The Wise and Foolish Virgins [13] in the Gospel of Matthew, from which Jerome quoted in his Epistle 22 [14]. The parable is about the ten virgins; five of them are wise enough to take the oil jar along with the lamps, and the other ones are foolish since they don’t take any oil with them. Christ shuts out the door to the foolish ones for they are not prepared to meet him. Because he considers anyone who lets their light run out of oil foolish and undeserving of entrance into the Kingdom of God. Jerome, therefore, counsels Eustochium to keep her lamp lit all the time for the arrival of her Bridegroom. With this parable, Jerome reminds Eustochium that being a virgin is not enough; to ensure salvation, one must be on guard against any temptation [15]. This emphasis is intensified by the cat below, an animal associated with the Devil in the Middle Ages because of its ability of waiting patiently and pouncing upon its prey [16]. Likewise, the Devil ubiquitously waits to ensnare the children of God with various temptations and capture their souls. The belief that female cats are promiscuous animals and have a nature of tempting their males by their lures of sexual temptation was still dominant in the Middle Ages. Thus, using these three elements Antonello underlines Jerome’s spiritual admonitions to Eustochium about keeping her virginity as her greatest treasure safe and being on guard against the Devil’s traps.

It is evident in Saint Jerome paintings that there is always a lion accompanying him. According to the Golden Legend which is a collection of saints’ lives and legends compiled around 1260, one day a lion came into the monastery, limping because of a thorn stuck in his paw. While all the other monks panickingly fled, Jerome approached the lion as if he was welcoming a guest, healed him by removing the thorn from his paw and charged him as a guard for the monastery [17]. This legend is depicted in Vittore Carpaccio's Saint Jerome and the Lion of 1502. It is remarkable that the lion in Jerome paintings is obedient and loyal. The function of the king of the beasts in this legend was to show that even wild Nature could be tamed by Christianity [18].

We see, here, that Antonello refers to the legend by depicting the lion limping, one forepaw drawn up.

The landscape in the left symbolizes the worldy existence with the habitants involved in various activities, while the uninhabitated one without any human-made object in the right represents isolation and purification from the sinful temptations.

Antonello fortifies this emphasis with the isolated, wild landscape behind the lion in the painting. Making reference to the temptations and pleasures of the earthly existence in the left-hand landscape where people are engaged in various activities such as walking and boating, the artist depicts the landscape in the right isolated and uninhabited. This represents the ascetic life of the hermit in the wilderness and his withdrawal from all the worldly existence. Moreover, the fact that the landscape in the right background is farther than the one in the left and the pillars of the vaulted corridor are brightly illuminated through the light from outside in the right implies that this path eventually leads to the Salvation even it is long, enduring and challenging. We see in the windows above Jerome and above the quiet landscape the small birds in flight symbolizing the Christian soul flying up to Heaven. Indeed, he specifically uses this reference in his Epistle 22 when describing the Last Judgment which their destiny will be determined:

“...And when your eyes have been opened you will see a chariot of fire which will carry you, as it carried Elijah, up to the stars; and then you will joyfully sing: ‘Our soul is escaped as a sparrow out of the snare of the fowlers: the snare is broken and we are escaped’.”

By placing these small birds above Jerome, Antonello anticipates his future in Heaven. The peacock we see in the foreground also fortifies this reference since, as one of the main elements from the Paradise settings of the Early Christian times, it was a symbol of immortality and resurrection; because it was believed that the flesh of peacocks were so hard that it never putrefied. The basin of clear water in front of the peacock, on the other hand, is interpreted both as a baptismal font cleansing from all sins and the Fountain of Life which is believed that it is located in Paradise and offers rebirth and salvation [19]. The partridge with its back turned to the peacock is interpreted with its negative connotations in many sources concerning the painting, because of its location corresponding to the left. In the bestiary, it was portrayed as a cunning, disgusting and sexually perverted bird [20]. Their perversion was described as: “…desire torments the females so much that even if a wind blows toward them from the males they become pregnant by the smell.” [21] Furthermore, the bestiary tells us about the female partridge stealing eggs of another female and raising them as her own, and this also makes a direct reference to Jeremiah 17:11 saying “like a partridge that hatches eggs it did not lay…” According to the story in the bestiary, however, “when the young are hatched and hear the call of their real mother, they instinctively run away from the one who is brooding them and return to the one who laid them” [22]. Due to such negative connotations, partridge, like the cat, is considered as an animal associated with the Devil; because he also tries to steal the children of God from him. There is, however, an important point in this story saying that when the call of Christ is heard, the wise ones fly away and put their trust in Jesus. Here we see again the contrast between the wise and foolish ones, which recalls the parable of The Wise and Foolish Virgins. Therefore, the existence of the partridge in the left side of the composition symbolically coincides with this negatively-associated darkened area. Yet, I would like to mention that in her 1983 article, Penny Howell Jolly points out the possible positive connotations of the partridge as well, and suggests that its significance is threefold [23].

Even if we, as viewers, may not have any clue about the elements, their meanings and connotations, the idea behind their arrangements and their relationship with each other, the painting successfully hauls us, at first glance, into its depths thanks to its beautiful architectural composition and highly-detailed style. As the references that Antonello da Messina used as a basis for his painting are unfolded, however, we witness how unique and distinctive this masterpiece is. With his choice of depicting Saint Jerome, his teachings and admonitions and his importance to the world of Christianity by using the his Epistle 22 and the Mariological symbolism, Antonello reveals his artistic intelligence and creativity through his extraordinary style in St. Jerome in His Study.


[1] According to the sources, the painting has influences of fifteenth-century Flemish art, and moreover, has long been recognized as a work by the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck due to its meticulous manner and symbolism. In the effort not to elaborate the article any further, I decided not to include the relation between Antonello and Flemish art. Those who’re interested can check out the sources discussing the subject with detail: see Hagen R. M. & Hagen M., “What Great Paintings Say”, vol.2, p.60 (Taschen, 2003); Barbera G. “Antonello da Messina: Sicily’s Renaissance Master” p.14, 20-26 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005).

[2] Campbell C., “Antonello da Messina, Saint Jerome in his Study”, published online in Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting in 2014. The National Gallery, London. see the link.

[3] According to Hagen R. M. & Hagen M., this arrangement is significant. Because, when considering the small size of the painting and keeping the fact that this is a portrayal of a saint in mind, we see Saint Jerome was depicted astonishingly small. Antonello, however, preferred to emphasize the saint’s importance by presenting him as a precious stone, instead of endowing him with substantial size or positioning him in the foreground. See Hagen R. M. & Hagen M., “What Great Paintings Say”, vol.2, p.59 (Taschen, 2003).

[4] There is no exact date of Jerome’s birth in the sources on the saint’s life. This is discussed by M. H. Williams in detail. See Williams. M. H., “The Monk and the Book: Jerome and the Making of Christian Scholarship”, p.268 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006).

[5] Also see Gillman F. M. “Vulgate”, An Introductory Dictionary of Theology and Religious Studies, 2007, p.1477; Harman. Ö. F., “Kitab-ı Mukaddes”, v.26, p.76

[6] Fremantle W. H., “The Principle Works of St. Jerome”, 1893, p.16.

[8] Jolly, H. P., “Antonello da Messina's Saint Jerome in His Study: An Iconographic Analysis”, The Art Bulletin, 1983, 65(2), p.240.

[9] Ibid, p.243.

[10] Ibid, p.243-44.

[12] It is, of course, hard to tell at first glance that this is an unlit lamp. However, to be able to identify this object, please check out the lamps in the hands of the virgins in the fifteenth-century The Wise and Foolish Virgins paintings (see image 1 and image 2). Also see the lighted version of the lamb hung on the wall of the cave in Mantegna’s Saint Jerome in Penitence.

[14] In Epistle 22:25, Jerome makes reference to the story of Dinah in Genesis xxxiv and counsels Eustochium not to be like Dinah and warns her about that the Bridegroom cannot be found in the corners of the city and the public squares.

[15] Jolly, p.245.

[16] The papal bull released by Pope Gregory IX. in 1232 is a significant indication of how the Medieval people obsessed with the superstitious belief about cats. He declared all black cats to be evil and “an incarnation of the Devil” and described their owners as witches. He, therefore, commanded to kill them. The Europeans continued this tradition of killing cats for 300 years. Consequently, the serious decrease in cat population allowed the rodent population to burgeon and caused the plague to rage even more lethally. See also, Andrews W. G., “Killing the Cats”, December 2008, see the link.

[17] Carr-Gomm, S., “Sanat: Sanatın Gizli Dili”, Trans. Lizet Deadato, (İstanbul: İnkılap Kitabevi, 2014), p.151.

[18] Hagen R. M. & Hagen M., p.61.

[19] Jolly, p.247.

[20] “The Bestiary: A Book of Beasts”, translations from Latin: T. H. White, 1954, p.136, see the link.

[21] Ibid, p.137.

[22] Ibid, p.136.

[23] Jolly, 249-50. Since I do not want to elaborate the article any further, I prefer not to discuss her hypothesis. But those who are interested in can read her article through JSTOR. Here is the link.

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