An old man is sat at a desk. His intelligence burns brightly above is head like a white halo as he writes in ink on a raised platform. His room is filled with things; measuring equipment and scientific apparatus, a skull, cushions, a lion, a dog and many books. The light from outside translates the designs of the glass windows onto the adjacent wall while a small model of the crucifixion of Christ stands facing him on his desk. This is the general detailing of Albrecht Dürer’s etching of St. Jerome in his study from 1521 and is absolutely typical in how the artist used a cacophony of detail to highlight a wider, philosophical whole.
Dürer’s etchings are essentially entities built from multitudes. Their beautiful, specific detail belies an equally ravenous interest in just about everything, typical of the growing Enlightenment of his era. The busyness of objects creates a finite, often singular purpose, very much like the hundreds of pores on a piece of skin. St. Jerome is a particularly effective piece of work in that its subject, like the artist and his mentality, was equally gifted with curiosity and exploration. In a sense Dürer collects whole lives in very single, seemingly everyday moments; the man working in his study on a bright day comes to suggest a detailed life possessed of a longing need for knowledge.
This particular etching was one of a trilogy, Knight, Death and the Devil (1513) and ‘Melencolia’ (1514) being the other two that explored the trio of man’s necessary endeavours: Morality, Intellect, and Theology. Though the trilogy is perhaps more famous for linking the intellect with melancholy, St. Jerome doesn’t seem too dissimilar in terms of thematic ideas. The lonely figure is accompanied only by the nonhuman. Even the dog is there for a more typical Dürer expression with the animal representing loyalty in many of his works. The lion too, being a cipher of St. Jerome himself, is really only evidence that the man is accompanied by fragments of his own academic achievements and little else. There is, however, contentment in this.
One of the most interesting aspects of the work is an unusual line, created partly by the etching’s famously confusing perspective. The angle of the general view almost mismatches with the angle of the room, distancing the viewer from the experience of being alongside the saint. This has been debated for a number of years by art historians, including Erwin Panofsky, but it is rarely considered as to what it does to the position of the subject. While questions surrounding the viewer are interesting, it ignores how the perspective actually further isolates the saint, hence why it seems not all that different from (and a continuation of his themes from) Melencolia. But the aspect of interest here is the line created between the figure, the crucifix and the skull.
St. Jerome is staring and focussing his eyes down on his work. If he was to look up directly, in his line of vision he would see two things: the crucifix and the outline of the skull that sits directly behind it. Death will always be seen through the prism of his theology which is a perfect embodiment of a man whose chief work was a Latin translation of The Bible. This is, of course, if he looks up from his work at all. From the etching, it is clear that if he does, he will see evidence of his own mortality and the theology that is inscribed into it. It is a subtle, beautiful trait of character created by Dürer, perhaps hinting that the work continues with minor interludes into questioning the man’s personal role in the world. As the etching was designed to express Theology and personal contemplation, it is a quiet but effective framing of such questions.
Dürer cannot but add his own unique detail to the etching too. His famous ‘A’ signature is on a small board on the floor, the placing of which questions the design of the lion’s tail, coiled into a suspicious looking ‘D’. Even if creating a sketch that balances universality with the specific qualities of a portrait, the personal is still there too. Dürer cannot overcome his own playful nature and, if there is a hint of loneliness, even sadness and acceptance as in so much of his work, it is one whose endless detail is always arresting and disarming.
Light lifts the designs of a window,
And thoughts from a skull,
Both onto wood,
Through pen and ink.
But a dog rests,
Loyal to the end,
Which seems not too far,
Only through the shadow of a crucifix,
Sat on a scratched desk,
Besides the bones of the latest translation.
It will be finished,
Before the light fades,