Today’s post comes from Diane Butler, The Andrew W. Mellon Coordinator of Academic Affairs.
When Kate Susman, Professor of Biology on the Jacob P. Giraud, Jr. Chair, looks into the eyes of St. Jerome she sees a troubled man. Head in hand and with furrowed brow, the scholar and saint contemplates….what? The difficulties of translating the Bible into Latin or the finite nature of Man?
This week’s speaker in the Artful Dodger lecture series focused on the inherent conflicts and dualities present in the 16th-century Circle of Joos van Cleve painting of St. Jerome in his study. As a trained scientist Susman was drawn to the perfectly rendered flowers, flasks, and distant landscape, but as a woman who had in her youth considered becoming a nun, she could not discount the powerful spiritual content in the painting. Delicate potted flowers sit alongside a crucifix illuminated by a hanging lamp. For Susman this grouping contrasted sharply with the scholarly tasks represented in the foreground by books, spectacles, and an extinguished candle.
Questions from attendees led Susman to explain that although St. Jerome points to the area on the skull that correlates to the brain’s temporal lobe, contemporaries would not have understood it as such. Memory storage, other cognitive abilities, and even the soul were still associated with the heart.
“My everyday world is this human skull,” Susman concluded. Nevertheless, the inherent tensions in the painting, between the intellectual and spiritual, proved irresistible to this neurobiologist. Attendants at yesterday’s program caught a glimpse of how a 21st-century scientist views a 1st-century scholar as he was represented in the 16th century. Kate Susman bridged these vast temporal distances when she noticed distress in St. Jerome’s face and sought to understand its source.