St Jerome in his study

This bright but (to modern eyes) ultimately depressing picture is a memento mori painting designed to make the viewer reflect upon the transience of life and the swift passage of time.

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Painting of St Jerome in his study

St Jerome in his study
after Joos van Cleve and
Marinus Van Reymerswaele
possibly 16th c.
 

The spectacles on the table are one symbol of old age and bodily decay. They sit neatly alongside the saint's lengthy beard, the human skull, the extinguished candle and the sands of time flowing away in the hourglass on the windowsill.

You may click on the image of this painting to enlarge it.

The particular inscription in the BOA Museum’s picture translates ‘Remember your death; look to life’s end’. Other versions of this painting include mottos such as Homo Bulla, 'Man is a bubble' and Cogita mori, 'Think about your death'.

Weary from reading, the saint has discarded even his spectacles, but their abandonment may only be temporary. Yet, lest we should all abandon hope immediately, the artist has included a happier symbol. The stoppered carafe holding a red liquid may be interpreted as a symbol of Mary’s purity and virginity. Mary was regarded as the vessel that contained Christ, and was consequently often symbolised by a carafe containing red wine - the Eucharistic blood of Christ. The presence of this symbol may be explained in two ways; firstly Jerome was well known for his ardent defence of Mary’s perpetual virginity; and secondly, just as the Virgin made Christ incarnate, so Jerome’s translation of the Bible made God’s word incarnate.

Detail of the painting showing the spectacles

The picture is on panel, and may be a sixteenth-century version; at any rate it is this museum's oldest painting. It is of good quality in terms of the execution of the painted surface, the rendering of texture, and the attention to detail, for instance, the writing in the Bible is legible. The words, in Latin, appear to be those at the beginning of Psalm 51: ‘Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Thy loving kindness’. Perhaps corrective eyewear is one mercy readily available to modern viewers. In this context the spectacles bring to mind the motto of the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers: 'A Blessing to the Aged'.

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Listen to the stories behind nine of our historic oil paintings and learn why they remain relevant to the present day ('Council Room Paintings Tour' available online or as a downloadable app)

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