3 Depictions of Saint Jerome: Albrecht Dürer’s Fascination

These three images by Albrecht Dürer show a gradual evolution through the artist’s attitude to Saint Jerome.

Apr 6, 2024By Shane Lewis, MA Art History

albrecht durer saint jerome


One of the most celebrated artists of the Renaissance, Albrecht Dürer produced devotional imagery at a prolific rate. But it is the legends surrounding the life of Saint Jerome that held a particular interest for the German artist. As a saint, ascetic hermit, cardinal, and Doctor of the Church, and not least as the translator of the Bible into Latin, Jerome had many guises — as did Dürer’s obsession with him.


Albrecht Dürer’s Status

13 year old albrecht durer
Self-Portrait at the age of thirteen, by Albrecht Dürer, 1484, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The Florentine painter and art historian, Giorgio Vasari, was to write in the mid-16th century that Albrecht Dürer was the greatest artist “among the Flemings.”  Despite his geographical ignorance, Vasari was effusive in his praise, claiming that the Nuremberg artist would have been the greatest of the Italian painters, had he been born a Tuscan. Despite Vasari’s Florentine patriotism, Dürer was placed on a rung of the ladder of greatness just below the idolized Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo — and this inferiority, by implication, was due more to his place of birth north of the Alps than to a perceived lack of artistic quality.


Dürer’s contemporary, whom he depicted in his work, Erasmus of Rotterdam, was perhaps even more enthusiastic. The Dutch scholar, referencing a legendary ancient Greek painter, called the artist the “Apelles of black lines,” referring to the German’s unparalleled skill in the media of prints and engravings. Dürer’s fame has been constant but, even so, he attained still greater heights at several points in art history, especially at the turn of the 19th century. With a note of nationalistic pride, the writer Wilhelm Wackenroder wrote in 1797 that Dürer was a “truly native painter” who rendered a world realistically and with truth, in contradistinction to Raphaelite idealization. The reference to Raphael is no accident, as his work was considered at the time to be the pinnacle of achievement in art.


Saint Jerome and the Artist

praying hands by albrecht durer
Praying Hands, by Albrecht Dürer, c.1508, Source: Wikimedia Commons


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The preoccupation of the German master Albrecht Dürer with the life of the Church Father Saint Jerome is well documented. There are about a dozen such representations in his oeuvre. Three of these works — two engravings and a painting — serve to illustrate three aspects of the myth of the saint and three modes of Dürer’s fascination with it.


The earliest of these works, Saint Jerome in the Wilderness from around 1496, shows the 25-year-old artist’s concern with the story of the contrite saint in the desert. It also reveals the influence of Italian art as the “Jerome in the desert” theme did not emerge until the late 1400s in Italy (Dürer is said by most to have undertaken his first trip to Italy in August 1494).


The second work, Saint Jerome in His Study from 1514, is highly celebrated and is one of the so-called Meisterstiche (“master prints”). The saint is depicted in this print as a scholar, renowned as he was as the writer of the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible. The third, Saint Jerome is a later, richly colored, and meticulously observant painting of 1521, that can be read as a synthesis of the earlier two images. In the chronological progression from image to image over the course of Dürer’s career, there is an evolution of the artist’s engagement with his subject.


1. Asceticism and Devotion: Saint Jerome Penitent in the Wilderness, 1496

saint jerome in wilderness durer
Saint Jerome Penitent in the Wilderness, by Albrecht Dürer, c.1496, Source: MET Museum, New York


Jerome was the archetypal ascetic of Christian legend. He is reputed to have spent five years in the wilderness in Syria and a further 34 in the desert near Bethlehem. The artistic tradition of depicting the saint in such an environment dates at least as far back as the 1400s in Italy. Often in artistic portrayals of Jerome in the wilderness, he is shown as a diminutive figure dwarfed by the encompassing landscape but here the saint is placed close to us in the immediate foreground. His austere life and devotion are thus monumentalized by Dürer, and his violent act of repentance — striking himself with a stone to mortify his flesh — seems to be an example and exhortation to the viewer, a physical manifestation of the necessity of the purgation of the soul.


Martin Schongauer, the master whose death prevented him from meeting with the young Dürer, is said to have brought the Flemish “particularism and naturalism…to the Rhine.” This engraving by Dürer bears many of the hallmarks of Schongauer’s precision, especially in the richly depicted detail of the rocky outcrops of the middle and background, and in the trees and vegetation.


The wilderness here is austere but at the same time furnishes the scene with its own kind of opulence. Dürer himself was to write in his posthumously published Four Books of Human Proportions: “But life in nature manifests the truth of these things…do not depart from nature arbitrarily…art is embedded in nature; he who can extract it has it.” The artist doesn’t “depart from nature” here, as the fronds of vegetation and the variety of trees are meticulously depicted, and the works of this early period in his career are notable for their painstaking topographical detail.


saint anthony martinschongauer
Saint Anthony Tormented by Demons, by Martin Schongauer, 1470-4, Source: The MET Museum, New York


The triangular complex to the left of the composition between the head of Jerome, the crucifix, and the church above Jerome’s head, points to the transience of his stay in the desert and, by extension, the transience of the state of sin in the case of repentance and expiation. Indeed, the presence of the church in the upper background, nestled among the trees that spring from the sparse soil on the sheer rockface, marks the journey from ascetic contrition toward the state of grace and the return to God. Additionally, this feature of the landscape recalls the words of Christ to Peter, telling him that he is the rock upon which he will build his church. It is perhaps too much to say that the artist is representing Jerome as a second Peter but, as one of the four Church Fathers and the translator of the bible, Jerome certainly helped to extend the authority of and the accessibility to the Church in the late fifth century.


The whole image would seem to converge on the promise of grace. The elegant flowing lines of the foreground, in which Jerome kneels beside his faithful lion, are analogous to and premonitory of God’s mercy. It has been said that Dürer’s delineation is “expressionistic rather than descriptive,” the latter term being more redolent of the classical tradition. This is certainly true in this image, particularly of the eloquent flow of the lines of the foreground that seem to enclose the ascetic and the lion in a natural niche that recalls an altar in the transept of a church. These lines, as well as expressing Jerome’s destiny in the grace of God, also speak of Dürer’s burgeoning expertise in the medium of engraving at the age of 25.


2. Humanism and Piety: Saint Jerome in His Study, 1514

saint jerome in study print lion
Saint Jerome in His Study, by Albrecht Dürer, 1514, Source: The Royal Collection’s Trust


A far cry from the earlier 1496 portrayal, Jerome is represented here as a scholar rather than an anchorite in the desert, and as such the image is partaking in a pictorial tradition that dates to at the latest the Late Medieval Period. The saint sits working in his study, a deeply recessed room that sets him at a distance from the pictorial plane.


Until around 1505, Dürer’s work is maintained to have been firmly in the northern tradition, although a visit to Nuremberg by the Italian painter and theorist, Jacopo de’Barbari in 1500 had an impact on his work. Having met Jacopo in Nuremberg, Dürer began to study perspective and gradually became more systematic in its rendering. This engraving marks a peak in the regularity of the perspectival system. The whole image is, as Peter Parshall notes “a rigidly constructed mathematical perspective which conveys an image of exacting intellectual and spiritual discipline.” Of course, the intellectual denotes Dürer’s image-making, and the spiritual is exemplified by Jerome at work. Yet there are signs of a certain intimacy despite the pictorial distance. Certain details situate the artist and viewer closer temperamentally to Jerome than this physical space would suggest.


six tuscan poets
Six Tuscan Poets, by Giorgio Vasari, 1544, Source: Minneapolis Institute of Art


The artist, a humanist thinker himself, portrays Jerome not in the desert but in his study in order to situate him in an intermediate environment for a conversation between the humanist concern with man on the one hand, and the realm of unshakable faith and the ultimate renunciation of that world on the other hand. Although Dürer depicts Jerome’s study, he has co-opted the “saint-as-scholar” into the sphere of Renaissance inquiry. Perhaps the conversation was even more literal — an imagined meeting between the artist and the saint that obsessed him throughout his working life. The second chair facing Jerome, combined with the presence of Dürer’s famed monogram just behind it, suggests the vestigial presence of the artist.


These two signs of a residual metaphoric presence on behalf of the artist places in dialogue the humanistic endeavor of the Renaissance artist on one hand, and the discipline of religious piety on the other. Renaissance humanism and religious scholarship were not wildly different from each other — particularly in terms of activity — but they did vary in the object of their pursuit, and it is this difference between the worldly and the otherworldly that the artist is juxtaposing.


Between the two intellects — one depicted, one depicting — there is a confluence of the sacred and the profane. On the one hand, there is Jerome’s devotion to the divine, while on the other there is Dürer’s mundane depiction of this devotion.


close up jerome by window
Close-up of Jerome by the light of the window, from Saint Jerome in His Study, by Albrecht Dürer, 1514, Source: The Royal Collection’s Trust


There is an abundance of light shining in through the window that illuminates the room. This is analogous to the Holy Spirit that infused the apostles with the ability to speak in tongues at Pentecost. Jerome is similarly blessed in his work of translation. The light, certainly a divine blessing, is, however, wrought by the mortal hand of Dürer who glorifies both the example of the scholar-saint and his own skill, concentrating its beams on Jerome’s bowed and haloed head. The lighting of the room is in a dramatic chiaroscuro that relates a figurative as well as literal illumination.


Scholar Alistair Smith has written of the impact of Venetian painting on Dürer’s subsequent art. Smith contends that his works become less linear and more concerned with contrasts of light, using an abundance of hatching and cross-hatching to create these contrasts. This is certainly partly in evidence in Saint Jerome. Smith notes that “[Dürer] no longer invents a linear formula for the things he sees.” However, this may appear slightly simplistic when looking at Saint Jerome in His Study. There is surely a tonal concern with light in the engraving that was not a feature of Dürer’s work earlier on, and this probably does result from his encounter with Venetian painting. However, in the discipline of the artist’s perspective in the deep pictorial space, it is evident that a more accurate thing to say is that Dürer actually fuses the linear and the “painterly” in the image, making it a more universal aesthetic that combines the northern tradition and Italianate classicism.


Smith also argues that Dürer’s fleeting moments of atmosphere — another influence of Venetian art which can be seen here, especially in the dramatic lighting — leads not to more precise realism but “a new expressive intensity.” The energy and brio of this image is undeniable and, as well as contrasting with the solitary study of the saint, it complements it by suggesting the world-historical significance of Jerome’s translation of the Vulgate. It also seems undeniable in this context that “the line achieves an expressive force in excess of the imitative function.”


page from saint jerome vulgate
Page 277 of the Codex Sangallensis 63 cop of the Latin Vulgate, 8th century, Source: E-Codices


There are iconographical details also that point to a combination of the secular and the religious. The dog can be read as indicative of faith, Jerome’s lion as a protective Christ. The skull is a memento mori: a reminder of the inescapability of death — a conventional detail in the Vanitas tradition of images that highlight the mortality of the human flesh and the insignificance of all human endeavors. Jerome, in his self-sacrifice to the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Latin via the Greek Septuagint, emulates in a minimal way the sacrifice of Christ whose memento in the form of the crucifix faces the saint at work.


The skull is equidistant between the picture plane or surface and Jerome, which could be read as uniting the artist and the saint in their labor under the shadow of their approaching mortality, a thematic detail that looks forward to the 1521, Saint Jerome.


painted version jerome in study with lion
Painted copy of Saint Jerome, after Albrecht Dürer, 1514-60, Source: The Royal Collection’s Trust


The virtuosic detail of Dürer’s hatching marks, especially the supreme vision and skill of his rendering of the wooden ceiling which is almost moving in a metaphor of the flux of the human soul or the fluency of pure intellect, also contrasts with the outward quiet of the figure of Jerome himself. As such, the body is neutralized — Jerome’s literal body is canceled out by his ample clothing and by the deep recession of space — while the entire scene seems to emanate pure mind and spirit.


However, this intimacy between artist and saint is qualified and perhaps compromised. The lion, prostrate on the floor near the surface of the picture space divides the two men and their sensibilities. Also, Dürer’s chair is empty. Therefore, we are forced to conclude from this that there is more sympathy than empathy between artist and saint. There is a shared devotion to their respective vocations, but these vocations are at the same time incompatible: Dürer is a man of the world that his art is devoted to recording, while Jerome is the symbol of the rejection of worldly affairs. The encounter between these two worldviews is, however, respectful, and although at variance, they are not simply mutually exclusive. Indeed, during the Renaissance, many humanist scholars held Jerome up as a laudable example of intellect. Dürer’s friend, Erasmus, and several colleagues were preparing for publication the complete works of Jerome around the time that the artist was working on this engraving.


holbein erasmus
Erasmus of Rotterdam, By Hans Holbein the Younger, 16th century, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The depiction of the gourd and ivy hanging from the ceiling is another important detail, both in biblical exegesis and in humanist philology. It refers to a controversy over the translation of the Hebrew word kikayon, which Jerome rendered as hedera (ivy), while Augustine and others read it as curcurbita, “gourd.” The problems Jerome faced in his biblical translation and, more generally, the problems of humanist interpretation formed a lively debate by the 16th century, and Saint Jerome reflects that. The Augustinian gourd hangs from the ceiling as well as Jerome’s ivy. This would suggest that Dürer is representing the moment of interpretive struggle on the part of Jerome — that he is considering the alternate translation before he arrives at his solution. This would, further, tell of Jerome’s open-mindedness, his generosity of intellect, and his independence in arriving at his conclusion.


The suggestion of an encounter of mutual respect is complicated and paradoxical in this work. It has the effect of the artist commandeering the personage of Jerome (and by extension, the sphere of sanctity) into the environs of Renaissance humanism on one hand. Yet, on the other hand, there is a certain implication of an equal exchange between saint and artist, between the holy and the mundane. This shifting meaning that depends on the perspective of the viewer adds to the mystique and fascination of this Meisterstich and marks it out as not just a feat of technical mastery but a learned and generous attempt on the part of Dürer to portray spiritual devotion and intellectual endeavor.


3. The Universal Plight of the Human: Saint Jerome, 1521

saint jerome in study by albrecht durer
Saint Jerome, by Albrecht Dürer, 1521, Source: The Art Newspaper


In the 15th and 16th centuries, the wide availability of prints and engravings made them a distinctly public medium. Apart from major public commissions, especially for churches, paintings were by contrast a more intimate phenomenon in terms of reception. This late painting by the artist — its subject matter, and the orientation and pose of the figure — adds to the sense of confessional intimacy between artist and saint, and saint and viewer. In this later rendition of Saint Jerome, Dürer relieves him of his physical privation and his worldly position. The saint is painted having gone beyond the extremities of repentance in the desert and without the cardinal’s hat that was shown in the 1514 engraving.


The artist found his model for Jerome on a trip to the Netherlands where he met a 93-year-old man. It is thought that on this trip to the Low Countries, Dürer contracted the unknown illness that was to end his life seven years later, which makes more poignant the theme of human mortality that pervades the painting.


The space in the painting is extremely straitened due to the proximity of Dürer’s Jerome to the picture plane. This focuses on, apart from Jerome, the juxtaposition in the foreground of the composition of the book and the skull. The book is of course the translated Vulgate, representing the life of the gospels in two senses: The beatific life of those who live by its teachings and the life of the biblical Word itself. The death’s head is the reminder of death — both physical and, for those who ignore the gospels, that of the soul.


Skull, by Albrecht Dürer, 1521, Source: WikiArt


Above the gospel and in the left background is a crucifix, as if the Bible’s words conjure it, inspiring the faithful with the ever-present image of Christ’s sacrifice. Jerome’s right arm interposes between these two features — the book and the crucifix — relating to the fact that, for many, his work of translation brought the Word to the general consciousness, the saint being the intermediary between event and record, and between the initiated and the many.


Jerome’s left forefinger is on the skull, and this combined with his outward gaze becomes an example and a warning, to repent or endure the perdition of the soul which can only be saved by the observation of Holy Writ. This idea chimes with the Lutheran insistence on the primacy of the gospels over the teachings of the Church, only four years after Martin Luther’s instigation of what would become the Protestant Reformation in Germany.


Dürer himself, although he never left the Catholic Church, was sympathetic to the ideas of Martin Luther. In 1520, the artist signaled his intention to make a portrait of Luther and, in a letter from four years later wrote: “we are reviled and called heretics.” However, in general, details of the character of Dürer’s religious sympathies and whether they were constant have not been established.


martin luther portrait
Portrait of Martin Luther, by Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1532, Source: The MET Museum, New York


The skull is foregrounded here, prioritizing the ultimate stage of life, whereas in the 1514 Saint Jerome in His Study the skull is only one detail among many. Here in 1521, it is one of only two facts and rules of existence, the other being the gospels. The counterposing of the two can be seen as a microcosm of hell and heaven, the finality of damnation contrasted with the eternal life of bliss within the law of God — but most of all, the choice between the two. The plume is in the inkpot and the saint’s right arm is raised to his head — Jerome’s work is done, and the cardinal and saint has become a mere man, a soul soon to be disembodied.


Conclusion: Three Modes of Being

albrecht durer self portrait
Self-Portrait, by Albrecht Dürer, 1500, Source: Web Gallery of Art


In the chronological progression from image to image over the course of a quarter-century of the career of Albrecht Dürer, the artist’s engagement with the subject of Saint Jerome evolved. The early 1496 engraving signals a fascination from a distance with the ascetic life, while the 1514 engraving entails an interaction and the identification of the artistic creative imagination with the studious humanistic effort of textual translation. The late painting of Saint Jerome from 1521 marks a convergence of being within the context of a universal, shared humanity that must come to terms with mortality.


These three images do not fit tidily into the thematic categories of piety, humanism, and universality. But they do afford an exploration of certain ideas that are represented by the images and which were historically relevant to Dürer’s contemporaries.

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By Shane LewisMA Art HistoryShane has an MA in Art History from the Open University in the UK. He has a particular interest in the art of the Renaissance, the Neoclassical period, and the 19 th and early 20 th centuries. As well as historical contexts as rendered and contributed to in artworks, he is interested in the visual representation of ideas throughout history. Shane works as a writer on art.