Today’s post comes from Ruben Ramos, Class of 2012 and Art Center Student Docent.
Last Thursday four scholars from various academic fields deconstructed one of the FLLAC’s most prized paintings to a full audience. In this semester’s Kaleidoscope lecture, Professor of Greek and Roman Studies J. Bert Lott, Professor of Art History Susan Kuretsky ’63, Professor of Religion Marc Michael Epstein, and Head of Special Collections and Adjunct Associate Professor of History Ron Patkus came together to give their various perspectives on the Loeb’s St. Jerome in his Study by Joos Van Cleve. Like a kaleidoscope, the four professors acted as mirrors to one another, creating larger story for the painting through their separate lectures.
Professor Lott, the first of the speakers, explored St Jerome the man, who was represented in art either as the archetypal scholar (as in our painting), or a wandering ascetic at the brink of death. Although Jerome was born into wealth and had an extensive education, he decided become an ascetic wanderer, traveling and studying classic poets and philosophers like Virgil and Cicero. Jerome fell ill several times during these journeys, especially in Antioch where he spent the majority of his time. One of Jerome’s bouts of illness was so severe that it led him to have a vision in which he was chastised for devoting his time to the study of secular figures. Scared the notion that he was, “a disciple of Cicero, not of Christ,” he transferred his intellect to biblical studies.
Professor Kuretsky, next stepped in to illuminate some of the painting’s formal elements, as well as its very extensive conservation history (which you can read about in a coming post by Simone Levine ’13). The painting’s fully developed space, allows us to situate St. Jerome in his world, a subject that had been tackled by many other artists including Albrecht Durer. Van Cleve engages viewers with various techniques, the objects in the foreground of the painting pop out toward the viewer and were painted in a trompe l’oeil manner making them look deceptively realistic. While all of the objects are beautifully and meticulously rendered, repetition of shape, and framing devices imbedded in the architecture of the room keep our eyes on St. Jerome.
What would Jerome be however, without his books strewn around him? Professor Patkus, explored these books as objects that carry meaning. The book open in front of Jerome, when translated, holds the message, “Out of the depths I cry to your Lord. Lord hear my voice.” This passage connects with the macabre tone of the painting, as referenced through various vanitas symbols. Vanitas symbolism is a popular means of discussing this painting, for instance Jerome’s finger placed on the skull in front of him is often seen as a reminder of man’s eventual outcome.
Lastly, Professor Epstein closed the lecture by challenging some of the established takes on this painting. Where some see vanitas elements, other interpretations can emerge such as that of the triumphant Christian church. What Epstein did most of all was explore further avenues for discussing the painting. In a forum such as this, in which listeners get different perspectives on one piece of art, it seems a fitting ending to have the last speaker urge listeners to consider a fresh point of view.