Why St. Jerome Is an Icon for Our Times
The thunderbolt of Bethlehem struggled with the need to synthesize classical learning and Christian truth. So did the brightest lights of the Renaissance and Reformation. And so do Christians today.
Guest blogger James Edwards is Bruner-Welch Professor of Theology at Whitworth College, Spokane, Washington. He is the author of The Hebrew Gospel and the Development of the Synoptic Tradition (Eerdmans, September 2009). Dr. Edwards is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and a contributing editor to Christianity Today magazine.
If you spend any time in the great art museums of Europe you will see with surprising frequency a more or less stylized portrait of an emaciated monk in a wilderness den, often pummeling his body with a stone. I have been interested in this figure for a number of years, but rarely have I seen other museum visitors recognize or relate to the subject. The monk who captured the imagination of the Renaissance painters is St. Jerome, who lived from 345 to 420. I believe that Jerome should capture our imagination as well, and serve as an icon of our times.
In nearly all the portraits, Jerome is depicted as a tormented ascetic, praying, with his four hallmarks somewhere on the canvas: a crucifix, a skull (symbolizing meditation on mortality), a recumbent lion (which Jerome reputedly befriended by extracting a thorn from its paw and which may symbolize the peaceable kingdom of Isaiah 11), and a red cardinal's hat (symbolizing Jerome's status, along with Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory the Great, as one of the four great doctors of the Latin church).
Before considering why Renaissance painters memorialized Jerome in this way, let me summarize his life.
Born in Dalmatia (modern Croatia), Jerome became a prolific scholar, translator, biblical exegete, and father of the Latin Vulgate Bible. Augustine remains better known than Jerome, but even Augustine envied Jerome's scholarly prowess, especially his mastery of Greek and Hebrew.
Jerome studied at Rome, traveled to Gaul (France), and in his late twenties became a monk in Syria, where for five years he learned Hebrew from a Jew. He was ordained a priest in Antioch, and then went to Constantinople where he entered the theological galaxy of Gregory of Nazianzus, who was Patriarch of Constantinople; Gregory of Nyssa; and Amphilochius of Iconium. In 382 he was back in Rome as the secretary of Pope Damasus, where he made the friendship of Ambrose, bishop of Milan. From Damasus he received a commission to do what perhaps no other scholar of the day was capable of doing: to translate the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament into Latin, which had become the lingua franca of the day.
Completed in 406, Jerome's Latin Vulgate ranks with the Septuagint as one of the most influential translations of all time. Jerome had hoped - and he probably had a right - to succeed Damasus as pope, but he was passed over.
In disappointment he left for the East with a widow named Paula, and her daughter Eustochium. They arrived in Jerusalem in 385, and from thence journeyed to Egypt where Jerome entered briefly into the monastic settlement of Didymus the Blind. A year later, Jerome, Paula, and Eustochium returned to Bethlehem where they founded one male and three female monastic communities. For the last three decades of his life, Jerome's quasi-monastic cell, which today is commemorated beneath the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, was a prodigious epicenter of exegesis, translation, hermeneutics, and history. He made supreme use of the great library in Caesarea founded by Origen and resourced by Pamphilus and Eusebius. He chronicled the history of Christianity to his day, wrote commentaries on many books in the Old and New Testaments, and contended vigorously for orthodoxy against Origenism, Arianism, Pelagianism, and Rufinus.
The church's debt to this brilliant, prolific, and influential scholar-monk is immense. Jerome was a thunderbolt, however, and conflict was a hallmark of his career. Indeed, he may have been one of those individuals who needed conflict in order to reach his zenith of his abilities.
What did the Renaissance find so appealing in Jerome? It was the conflict itself of a man who loved both the Christian faith and the pagan classics. Jerome had a terrifying dream of standing before Jesus Christ on judgment day and being rejected from salvation because of his love for the classics, and especially Cicero. Jerome's intermittent and not entirely successful pursuit of the ascetic lifestyle was an attempt to purge the influence of paganism from his life. In its attempt to synthesize humanism and Christianity, the Renaissance found a mirror image in Jerome. The conflict of Christian versus classical, Trinitarian monotheism versus pagan polytheism that contended for the soul of Jerome also contended for the soul of Europe in the Renaissance.
There have been times when the Western church seemingly came close to resolving the conflict between the pagan and Christian. Dante's synthesis of the classical and Christian worlds in The Divine Comedy was one instance, and the post-Reformation world of Protestant "state" churches was another.
An idealized depiction of the evolution from the classical to the Christian worlds can be seen in Augsburg, Germany. On one wall of the magnificent town hall, twelve large frescoes of Greek and Roman rulers are faced by complementary frescoes of twelve rulers of Christian Europe on the opposing wall. The counterpart of Julius Caesar is Charles V, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Caesar's motto is Veni, vidi, vici ("I came, I saw, I conquered"); Charles V's is Veni, vidi, vicit ("I came, I saw, He [=God] conquered"). It looks providential: Caesar is the pagan forerunner of Charles; Charles the Christian fulfillment of Caesar.
The fitful romance between classical and Christian has never led to formal marriage, however, at least in the Latin West. The soul of the West continues to be nourished by the pagan and Christian, the Renaissance and (Counter) Reformation, but they stand in tension with one another. Go to Paris: in the Louvre you'll feel the sensual attraction of paganism; in Notre Dame you'll sense the spiritual attraction of Christianity.
In America the tension is present in other ways. The pagan current manifests itself in the ubiquitous temptation to put our ultimate trust in human idolatries such as advanced missile systems, the hegemony of athletics, or the lure of science as the arbiter of the only truth that matters. But a Christian and salvific current is present as well, as manifested in the ongoing debates over the meaning of the gospel for issues such as abortion, infanticide, torture, homosexuality, divorce, and utilitarian and militaristic ends of human life.
As long as we live in a fallen world a complete synthesis of gospel and culture will not be possible. Indeed, whenever it is attempted, the gospel is inevitably compromised. My own life repeatedly bears witness to the tension between the two worlds. Perhaps yours does too.
Ponder again the urbane scholar-monk in his wilderness den. A skull - our impending mortality; a docile lion - the majesty of the powerful and untamed in nature; the cardinal's hat - a reminder of the ministry of the church in the world for good; and above all, the crucifix - the symbol of the redemptive suffering of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world. Jerome seems to be a necessary, if uncomfortable, icon for our own day.
This article originally appeared in The Edwards Epistle, Spring 2009. To subscribe to The Edwards Epistle contact the Rev. Phil Olson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image: St. Jerome by Albrecht Durer (1521) from the National Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon, via Wikimedia Commons.