Who was he?

Saint Jerome (c347 Ė 420)  was a priest and theologian whose image became one of the most familiar in Christian art.
    Iím not intending to offer any more than an abbreviated biography here. There are plenty to be found on the internet: the Wikipedia entry is excellent. So here is Jerome in a few hundred words. 
   My source for details of his life was Jerome: his life, writings and controversies by J N D Kelly, an excellent and balanced account, now sadly out of print.

Jerome (Hieronymus in Latin, Girolamo in Italian) Was born in Stridon, (location uncertain but probably near modern day Ljubljana in Slovenia). As a young man he headed to Rome to study Latin and Greek. Here, it seems, he behaved like most students do down to the present day; unlike most students, however, he spent the rest of his life anguishing about it.
   There followed a period of travel and study, first to Trier (now in Germany) and then to Aquila in northern Italy.
   Around 373 he headed for Antioch in Syria, staying for a while with his close friend Evagrius. He spent part of his time in Syria in a remote desert region, living the life of a hermit; this features in many paintings.
    Following ordination in Antioch he headed for Constantinople to pursue his studies there. In 382 he returned to Rome and became secretary to Pope Damasus the First. Here he began the work for which he is mainly known, the translation of the Bible into Latin, known as the Vulgate.
  It seems he had hopes of succeeding Damasus as Pope, but he was not a popular figure in Rome, and eventually left the city under a cloud of official disapproval and almost certainly maliciously concocted scandal.
In 385 he returned to Antioch, from where he travelled as far as Alexandria. By 388 he was established in a monastery in Bethlehem, where he remained for the rest of his life.

For Jerome, making friends was difficult, making enemies all too easy. There is little doubt that as far the ascetic life is concerned, he practised what he preached; unfortunately, his way of life was not accompanied by any noticeable degree of humility. He had a large ego, and did not suffer fools (or anyone that disagreed with him) gladly.  He was forthright in his promotion of chastity, but when this lead to remarks such as 'a widow who remarries is like a dog returning to its own vomit', one can see that tact was not his strong point. 
    In later years a feud developed between Jerome and an old friend from his student days, Rufinus. It started with a disagreement over interpretations of writings by Origen, an early Christian scholar from Alexandria that Jerome was quite keen on at first, then rejected when everyone else did. All very nit-picking and arcane.  Jerome's language to Rufinus was, well, to the point: 'that dumb but poisonous animal . . . destined to perish in his own pus.'  (this because Rufinus had the temerity to criticise his commentary on the Book of Daniel.)  'You distil from the dunghill of your breast at once the scent of roses and the stench of rotting corpses . . .'  Jerome also called him a 'grunting pig' and told the world how pleased he was when he heard he was dead. Not very saintly, then.


Jerome is not counted an original scholar,  but his translations were ahead of his time: his version of the Bible in Latin caused outrage in his lifetime, but later became the standard version, for the Catholic church at least.  His view was that the language of the Bible should not just be accurate, it should have nobility; it can thus be regarded as a forerunner of the King James Bible. For this, let us forgive all his sins.

Unlike biblical events, we have first-hand accounts of the life of Jerome, mainly from Jerome himself, whose letters contained much biographical material. As suggested above, Jerome was a voluminous and combative letter writer, and the hearts of many must have sunk when one of them dropped through their front door. All of Jerome's writings are available in translation on the Internet.
    The Golden Legend contains an account of the life of Jerome which is woefully inaccurate, but which is valuable for its detailed though entirely mythical account of Jeromeís lion.  There are also various apocryphal texts used by artists that are mentioned on the appropriate page. 
   As to modern sources, the Kelly book mentioned above is excellent. For background detail on the development of Christianity and the theological disputes of the time Diarmaid MacCulloch's A History of Christianity is unbeatable.

Jerome in art
The two most popular depictions of Jerome are as a studious scholar working away in his study, and as a penitent hermit in the desert. Visions or dreams, some mentioned in his own writings and some attributed to him, are a third theme. Later counter-reformation paintings underline his position as translator of the Vulgate, and attempt to demonstrate that this was directly inspired by God.
   There are many altarpieces that feature Jerome as one of a group of saints, sometimes in a 'sacra conversazione' with the Virgin. These may reflect the dedication of the host church, or may have been commissioned for a church of one of the Hieronymite orders. Some earlier paintings relate the life of Jerome; these are mainly drawn from the Golden Legend. 

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