The Shy Museumgoer


St Jerome’s home office is fit for a genius

Imagine you’ve been asked to paint a portrait of Eusebius Hieronymus Sophronius (“Please, call me Jerome”) in his study, which he uses as a home office.

To help you capture Jerome’s character, here’s some biographical information. He’s an erudite humanist who can read and write in three ancient languages — Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. He’s famous for being the first person to translate the Bible’s Old and New Testaments into Latin, thus providing the source material for almost all translations to follow. His correspondence with Western philosophers — especially his pen-pal friend Augustine of Hippo — still influences the way we define democracy today.

Oh, and for several years he wandered the desert searching for inner peace and his household pet is a lion.

It’s (really) complicated

For centuries European artists used standard poses, gestures, clothing, and backgrounds to convey a person’s role in society. But painting Jerome’s portrait is complicated because he lived during the fourth and fifth centuries. Who can say what he looked like? Or what his workspace looked like?

As it happens, quite a few people have tried, including a Renaissance artist from Sicily with a flair for razor-sharp detail.

Antonello da Messina, "Saint Jerome in his Study" (c.1475)
Antonello da Messina, Saint Jerome in his Study (c.1475)

Antonello da Messina placed Jerome in a cathedral-like environment to spotlight his role as a leading theologian. Center stage, Jerome sits at a free-standing desk that looks surprisingly modern — like kit furniture for which some assembly was required. On the shelves, books and scientific instruments remind us why Jerome was a role model for Renaissance scholars.

A peacock perched in the doorway symbolizes everlasting life, a concept deeply rooted in Jerome’s research. A pet lion watches over the writer from the shadows of a colonnade. To our left, a large window overlooks a verdant view fit for a humanist: two women strolling by a river, lovers rowing in a rowboat, a flock of sheep looking for their shepherd.

To my eye, this imagined home office looks improbably neat for a writer. Jerome even kicks off his shoes before climbing the three steps.

Antonello’s painting of Saint Jerome is beautifully detailed…

….but it’s more symbolic than realistic, more 15th century than fourth century, more Europe than the Holy Land. By comparison, an artist from Naples named Niccolò Antonio Colantonio imagined a much different home office.

Niccolo Antonio Colantonio, "Saint Jerome in his Study" (c.1445)
Niccolò Antonio Colantonio, Saint Jerome in his Study (c.1445)

Dried-up ink pens…a makeshift bulletin board…books in disarray…speaking from personal experience, this looks more like a writer’s home office. The hourglass on Jerome’s desk reminds us we’re all on a tight deadline. Behind the scholar, a mouse blithely nibbles on a piece of cheese.

The story goes that Jerome was teaching a group of students in Bethlehem when a lion came limping into the monastery. Everyone fled except the teacher, who noticed the animal was in pain. Jerome examined the lion’s foot and extracted a large thorn. From that day on, the lion never left his side.

In Colantonio’s painting, the lion surveys us while we survey the lion. It’s a clever ploy. He’s got our attention.

Are photographic portraits as compelling as a great painted portrait?

In 1890, Alfred Stieglitz moved to the United States, determined to prove that a photographic portrait is as capable of artistic expression as a painted portrait.

But is it? A photographic portrait is faster, more accurate, and less expensive than a painted portrait (though not always). But is it as persuasive? As definitive? Is there a qualitative difference between paintings by Rembrandt and Velázquez on the one hand, and photographs by Yousuf Karsh and Annie Leibovitz on the other?

Georgie O’Keeffe sketching in her home office, the garden.
Photo by Alfred Stieglitz (1918)

For centuries, the whole point of having your portrait painted was to establish your role in society. It had little to do with our modern, lonely desire to feel seen for who we really are. Do we still believe a person can be described from a single viewpoint in one place? Or will multimedia replace the official portrait?

I asked a presidential photographer for his perspective –

Several photographers I know say still photography is dead. I disagree. People look at social media and multimedia for a few seconds and then those images are gone. A great single image lasts forever. Remember the image of a very young John Kennedy saluting his father’s casket? A naked John Lennon hugging Yoko Ono? A man bravely standing in front of a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square?

I believe painted likenesses will always be a part of our society, although I do think multimedia will add to the official portrait.

Who will be the next great portrait painter? It’s anyone’s guess.

David Valdez, former director of the White House Photo Office, 2022