Saint Jerome (between 331 and 347 – 420) – „Romans hide your daughters because Jerome is coming”

Madonna with the four saints (Hieronymus with the lion), Niccolò di Liberatore, Galleria d'Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini

Madonna with the four saints (Hieronymus with the lion), Niccolò di Liberatore, Galleria d'Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini

We are familiar with this interpreter of the Bible mainly from images showing his old, rachitic body. However, behind the official façade of a hermit and erudite hides a man prone to conflicts and uncompromising, whose figure is willingly (today) recalled by those who, on one hand, want to show his misogyny, and on the other those who would like to prove that his attitude is the best evidence of valuing women in the late-antiquity Church. And where was the actual truth?

Madonna with the four saints (Hieronymus with the lion), Niccolò di Liberatore, Galleria d'Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini
Saint Jerome on the throne, Giovanni Santi, Musei Vaticani
St. Jerome with baby Christ and St. John the Baptist in the background, Perugin's circle, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini
Crucifixion with St. Jerome and St. Christopher, Galleria Borghese
Saint Jerome in Penitence, Museo nazionale di Castel Sant'Angelo
Saint Jerome adoring the crucifix, Lorenzo Lotto, Musei Vaticani
St. Jerome in the desert, Perugino, Galleria Colonna
Saint Jerome in Penitence, Tintoretto, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini
Saint Jerome in Penitence, Leonardo da Vinci, Musei Vaticani
Saint Jerome, Girolamo Muziano, Musei Vaticani
Saint Jerome, Trophime Bigot, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini
Saint Jerome reading, Caravaggio, Galleria Borghese
Saint Jerome, Leonello Spada, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica
Saint Jerome, Guercino, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini
Saint Jerome, Guido Reni, Musei Capitolini
Saint Jerome in Penitence, Federico Barocci, Galleria Borghese, pic. Wikipedia
Saint Jerome with the Trumpet of the Last Judgment, Jusepe de Ribera, Galleria Doria Pamphilj
Saint Jerome at work, Hendrick de Somer, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini, pic. Wikipedia
Saint Jerome, Jusepe de Ribera, Galleria Spada
Last Communion of St. Jerome, Domenichino, Musei Vaticani, pic. Musei-Vaticani
One of the altar with the image of St. Jerome in the Church of San Girolamo dei Croati
Pietro Gagliardi, paintings showing the life of St. Jerome in the church San Girolamo dei Croati
Façade of the Church of San Girolamo dei Croati
Façade of the Church of San Girolamo della Carità
The interior of the Church of San Girolamo della Carità
Main altar in the Church of San Girolamo della Carità, copy of a painting by Domenichino
Saint Jerome, Venetian school, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Palazzo Corsini
Saint Jerome, Jose de Ribera, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Palazzo Corsini

We are familiar with this interpreter of the Bible mainly from images showing his old, rachitic body. However, behind the official façade of a hermit and erudite hides a man prone to conflicts and uncompromising, whose figure is willingly (today) recalled by those who, on one hand, want to show his misogyny, and on the other those who would like to prove that his attitude is the best evidence of valuing women in the late-antiquity Church. And where was the actual truth?

Jerome stayed in Rome for several years and left us (in his notes) an image of a city filled with morally depraved pagans, as well as vain, living-in-luxury Church officials. He first came to the city on the Tiber as a young man and he partook in the joys of life, the visions of which would haunt him in his old age. He came to the Eternal City for a second time, as an already mature man and a charismatic expert on the Holy Scriptures, and once again surrounded himself with women, but this time of an entirely different sort.

But let us start at the beginning. We do not know the exact date of his birth, but historians point to somewhere between the years 331 and 347. Although he was born in a rather wealthy Christian family, he was not a declared Christian. He was fascinated by ancient writers, whom he became familiar with during his studies, which were available to high-born youths who wanted to start a career in the state administration. He came to Rome in order to study rhetoric and grammar under the watchful gaze of the famous Donatus. Let us remind ourselves that at that time the Roman society was mainly constituted of pagans, although Christians began playing a more and more prominent role in it.

Taking advantage of the charms of the city, the young Jerome left for Treviso in order to start an administrative career but prior to that, he was baptized (366). He never began the career which he planned, but started to study Christian writers and became interested in the ideas of living in asceticism (rejection of worldly goods, fasting, solitude, celibacy) accentuating the salvific sense of suffering as something necessary to achieve moral perfection and even sainthood. The reading of the popular at that time (among Christians) Life of St. Anthony by Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria became an important fact in his life. And it was probably under its influence that Jerome went to the Holy Land. He did not reach Jerusalem as he was struck down by an illness, but he did manage to stay at the famous center of Christian thought of that time which was Antioch. There he continued his studies, taking part in the exegetic lectures of the famous theologian Apollinaris of Laodicea, and then went to a hermitage on the desert of Chalcis not far from Aleppo where he perfected his Greek. He also began studying the basics of Hebrew, which he needed to read the Holy Scripture in its original version and listen to the comments of rabbis, which in turn allowed him to better understand the message of the Bible. However, he quickly gave up living in the desert and returned to Antioch becoming one of the charges of Paulinus - the bishop of the city. He ordained Jerome as a presbyter, however without any of the tasks connected with this function. Jerome desired a life of asceticism, focused on the analysis of biblical texts (commentary to the vision of the prophet Isiah) but also the analysis of translations (from Greek to Latin) of the famous Christian writers such as Origen or Eusebius of Caesarea. He declared himself as homo litteratus and devoted his life to writing.

Along with Paulinus, he came to the Council of Rome in 382 as a translator. Here his work on commentaries to the Bible was also appreciated as well as were his linguistic abilities – knowledge of Greek which was a skill that few possessed in the West, but above all Hebrew. These were the values that convinced Pope Damasus to entrust Jerome with the translation of the gospels into Latin, as well as the unification of their texts as they differed greatly from one another. His first task was to prepare the text of the New Testament and this is what he occupied himself with during the following year of his stay in the city on the Tiber.

His agonistic mind and lively temperament did not attract many friends. Not paying any heed to that matter, Pope Damasus introduced Jerome to the exclusive circle of Roman female aristocrats concentrated around Marcella on Aventine Hill who had been reading the Bible aloud for some time, interpreting its verses and translating paragraphs from Hebrew, while also leading a life of asceticism and exhibiting great piousness. In these ideal surroundings, Jerome found diligent interlocutors and friends. On the other hand, he was not very popular among pagans, and even among some Christians. As a fervent proponent of virginity and consecrated widowhood he claimed that full unitywith Christ is only possible through remaining single while fulfilling the duties of a wife (taking care of children and the household, pleasing one's husband) not only makes it more difficult but is simply a necessary evil. The resentment expressed towards him should therefore come as no surprise since under his influence married Christian women refused any kind of sexual activities, dressed in modest clothing, did not care about their hygiene or social life. Daughters declared that they would not marry, while widows bequeathed their fortunes to the Church or the clergy, with whom they surrounded themselves. Jerome seemed to introduce a cultural revolution – he was accused of attempting to destroy the holy act of matrimony and depraving girls. In order to discredit his teachings rumors were spread about his relations with the women from Aventine Hill which went far beyond reading the Bible, but he was also accused of mental and real freeloading on the women who financed him. As long as his patron, Pope Damasus was alive Jerome was able to ignore everything, however, after his death (385) he was more or less forced to leave the Eternal City. The direct cause of this departure was the death of one of his charges Blaesilla, who died due to her asceticism, or more precisely a draconian diet.

Jerome left Rome. He was accompanied by a group of sympathizers (mainly women), including a true religious zealot, the aristocrat, and widow Paula and her daughter Eustochium (a canon virgin). They settled in Bethlehem, where they established two communes – one for men, one for women. Paula and Eustochium aided Jerome in his work on the translation of the Old Testament, and it was they, who to a large extent contributed to the creation of this great work. Let us remind ourselves – in the Eastern Empire the translation of the Old Testament in use was the written in Greek, Septuagint, on which translation from Hebrew and Aramaic by the Jewish commune in Alexandria began in the II century B.C., and concluded in the II century A.D. This translation which was the effect of the work of many translators was full of corrections and supplementations. On the other hand, in the Western Empire, there were no less than three Old-Latin versions of the Bible, written in such a primitive tongue that they discouraged those who were more educated from reading them. Jerome created his version, the so-called Vulgate, translating the text in a new spirit based on the Hebrew original also using the Septuagint. However, he rejected the Old Latin translations (Vetus Latina). He worked for three decades on the Vulgate, but he also wrote comments, exegetic, dogmatic, and historical works,but most of all sent letters to nearly everyone. Many of these were addressed to his female students in Rome. In them, he expressed his views on issues disputed within the Church, but also fought against all those who questioned the primacy of virginity. He often went so far in his polemics that he contradicted himself – he praised virginity as difficult since it went against human nature, but later claimed that it is a return to the original human nature.

However, let us return to Jerome’s view of women – did he value them, consider them as equal to men? Of course, not. He expressed his thoughts on their intellectual abilities very clearly in one of the letters to his female student: “I know, Principia, daughter in Christ, that I am censured by many for writing to women and preferring the weaker sex to males. (…) If men asked about scripture, I would not be speaking to women”(Letter LXV). This quote requires no further commentary and it is only strange that to some it is a sign of Jerome’s feminism. The paternalistic attitude to women was nothing special at that time. Both among pagans as well as Christians a woman was considered a lower being, subject to a man. Jerome praised canon virgins, valued widows living in asceticism, approved married women who practiced sexual restraint, since then (as he writes) they are able to be equal to men. On the other hand, he did not approve of women who did not practice such virtues. In this way, he copied the stereotype which attributed inborn flaws to women, although he did provide them with an opportunity to shed their weakness.

Jerome's greatest accomplishment was the translation of the Old Testament into Latin, although the disputes surrounding it lasted for centuries. Initially, he was accused to be in the wrong when he moved away from the Septuagint and based his translation on the Hebrew texts, which meant a Judaification of the translation. In the West, old-Latin texts were still being used long after Jerome had completed his work. The quarrels were especially heated in the Eastern Empire, where the translation was deemed almost heretic and ungodly and the Greek text was still in use. Jerome's version of the Bible was officially accepted by the Church only at the Council of Trent in the second half of the XVI century. Unfortunately, it was not bereft of mistakes, which were corrected in subsequent centuries. One of them became part of the canon of art and its repercussions can be seen in Michelangelo’s Statue of Moses. The rays which emerge out of the prophet’s head became…horns in Jerome’s translation.Jerome died in Bethlehem and was buried in one of the grottos there, below the Church of the Nativity.

In the center of Rome, there are two churches dedicated to him. One of these is the San Girolamo dei Croati, which belongs to the Croatian community, and is connected with the fact that Stridon, where the saint was born is located in Dalmatia. The story of the life of Jerome is commemorated by a series of paintings found inside. The second, equally interesting church, is the San Girolamo della Carità. The popularity of Jerome in the Eternal City is further testified to by the fact that in 1960 in the area of the Gianicolense another church dedicated to him was established – San Girolamo a Corviale.

In Rome itself, we can see an unfathomable number of images from various periods. As early as the Middle Ages, Jerome was depicted in a group of the four Church Doctors of the Western Church (along with Augustine, Ambrose, and Gregory the Great) adoring Our Lady. He was also represented as a translator of the Bible sitting behind a lectern, in a cardinal’s hat, which is connected with the fact he reportedly wanted to become the bishop of Rome after the death of Damasus. He was also willingly shown as a semi-nude hermit in a grotto, or as a penitent on the desert and he was presented as such – with a rock in his hand beating his chest in penance (Saint Jerome in the Wilderness) – by Leonardo da Vinci (Pinacoteca Vaticana). He was often accompanied by a lion, from whose paw, according to a legend, Jerome was to pull out a thorn. Since the Counterreformation, the prevalent image, however, was one of an ascetic working on the translation of the Bible. This is how he was shown by Guido Reni (Galleria Spada), Guercino (Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini), or Caravaggio Saint Jerome Writing (Galleria Borghese) if we are to recall only the most outstanding painters of those times. However, we cannot forget a painting by Domenichino, depicting a rare iconographic motif – The Last Communion of St. Jerome.

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