(b. 1571, Caravaggio, d. 1610, Porto Ercole)

St Jerome

c. 1606
Oil on canvas, 112 x 157 cm
Galleria Borghese, Rome

Just as Protestants wished to translate the Bible into local languages to make the Word of God accessible to ordinary believers, so Catholics were keen to justify the use of the standard Latin version, made by St Jerome in the late fourth century. Jerome had been baptized by one pope, had been given his task as translator by another and had called St Peter the first bishop of Rome. Among the Latin Fathers of the Church he was a powerful ally against modern heretics, who attacked the cult of the saints, restricted the use of Latin to the learned and viewed the papacy as the whore of Babylon. It was wholly appropriate that this image was bought by Scipione Borghese soon after he was made a cardinal in 1605 by his uncle, the new Pope Paul V.

In pre-Reformation days Jerome was shown with a pet lion and a cardinal's hat. Now Catholic reformers wished to pare religious art down to its essentials, and the good-living cardinal, whose ample features were to be sculpted and caricatured by Bernini, acquired a painting that was as austere as it was sombre. The thin old man, whose face is reminiscent of the model who had been Abraham, Matthew and one of the Apostles with Thomas, sits reflecting on a codex of the Bible while his right hand is poised to write. Whereas in the Renaissance, Antonello da Messina and Dürer had made him into a wealthy scholar, Caravaggio reduces Jerome's possessions to a minimum. The text he holds open, a second closed one and a third kept open by a skull are perched on a small table. Harsh lighting emphasizes the sinewy muscles of his tired arms and the parallel between his bony head and the skull - man is born to die, but the Word of God lives forever.