Saint Jerome in his Study:

This picture is of a painting made by the Italian Renaissance master Antonello da Messina, in the 15th century.

The painting is relatively small, being only half a metre high. However it shows an expansive interior in amazing detail. A triumphal arch, like those used in altarpieces of the period, reveals the inside of a monastery. The arch gives the impression that the wall has somehow been peeled back on a secret and holy scene. 

Inside, St Jerome is immersed in study. His unusual-looking library alcove is a homely place, its shelves, ledges and alcoves harbouring animals, plants and vases, as well as books. It provides privacy, separating the saint from the world visible through the monastery windows. And the wall-less structure is open to the soaring vaults of the ceiling, as though connecting the saint, through his study of holy texts, to the Divine. 

This religious picture reminds me of the gifts of slowness, silence, and solitude that seem so rare in our culture today. At the time the painting was made, life was (in the words of French medievalist Jacques Le Goff) “dominated by agrarian rhythms, free of haste … unconcerned by productivity”. 

In the 15th century, the sun set our rhythms of work and rest. Since then, the invention of the mechanical clock and then the lightbulb have introduced rigid structures of time into our lives, and made it possible to stay up past sunset and start the day long before sunrise. More recently, the Sabbath has been replaced with consumerism, and the mobile phone has put the internet – and a world of distractions – in our pockets.

Clearly we can’t all be as monkish as Jerome. However, I believe we can, as St Paul urged the Thessalonians, make it our ambition to lead a simple and quiet life, following the practices of Jesus. I particularly like this rule for focussed success in a distracted world from Antonin-Dalmace Sertillanges, a Dominican friar and professor of moral philosophy in the early 20th century:

“Let your mind become a lens, thanks to the converging rays of attention; let your soul be all intent on whatever it is that is established in your mind as a dominant, wholly absorbing idea.”

This painting is a triumphal window of the soul. It is a medieval lens, through which we can perceive the deeply-held values of a past culture captured in its built-in qualities of artistry and method. The warm rays of sunlight that converge upon this secretive saint, with his cat and his pot plants, invite us to abide, and inhabit the moment. And the purpose? To come back to God, and to ourselves. 

By Tom Ingrey-Counter

Image Courtesy of the National Gallery London

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