Hieronymus ipse

Saint Jerome in his Study, Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1480

There's an old anthology of medieval Latin called Millennium. The cover has the above painting on it, in a black and white reproduction. I showed it to a friend. "He's looking... chipper", he said. Well... Then I tried to figure out who the guy sitting at his desk was. He has a halo, he's a writer: Was it Augustine? Jerome? I checked inside; it was Jerome. Then I looked again at it and realized I had checked the answer too soon; it had to be Jerome.


It's not terribly clear in this jpg, and only slightly clearer on the book's cover, but this particular scroll is written in Hebrew. And there's only one sainted post-Classical Latin writer likely to have Hebrew text hanging around: Jerome, translator of the Bible into Latin from Hebrew, Greek, and [presumably] Aramaic, creator of the Vulgate Bible, the standard Latin bible for well over a millennium.

I don't read Hebrew, which puts me in a terrific position to think about this aspect of the painting.

1. It might not be in Hebrew. Both reproductions are too small to make out this scrap of text, and I haven't seen the original painting. But it's Jerome, so you'd expect some Hebrew, and it looks like Hebrew.

2. It might be a relevant quotation from the Bible, maybe something punchy about writers. Certainly, painters often try to be clever like that.

3. It might be a random quotation from the Bible, or from some other Hebrew source. That way, it could be a legit sample of Hebrew.

4. It might be a poorly transcribed sample of either relevant or random Hebrew. Consider the lorem ipsum dummy text, mangled in the copying by people who probably didn't know Latin, and whose main concern was coming up with something that looked like text. This could be Hebrew furniture text.

5. It might not be real Hebrew at all, just an elaboration on what Hebrew looks like. Something like fake Cyrillic fonts (except not so tied to the English/Latin alphabet -- after all there are fake Hebrew fonts as well, and the Hebrew in the painting is probably not Hebrewized Latin), or perhaps even more, like fake Chinese tattoos.

Any of these are possible. The audience only needs to recognize the text as Hebrew and make the connection between Hebrew and Jerome; it's unlikely that the painter knew Hebrew or expected his audience to. I'd like to think (I think I'd like to think) that the artist made the effort to find an appropriate bit of Hebrew and copied it accurately. But then, I'd also be curious to see what shapes the artist thought were "Hebrewish", just like how it's fascinating when, say, British people try to imitate an American accent. They usually get it painfully wrong (and I'm sure we get British accents painfully wrong as well), but it reveals the contours of the American accent described, exaggerated, and contorted through the expectations of another, and helps you see how one cultural artifact is heard through another (not that you're not recontorting it through your own set of expectations, but that's as maybe).

One last small detail: The scroll in the painting seems to be written with the text going from one edge of the scroll to the other edge, whereas typically (I believe -- I'm not an expert on this sort of thing, so there might be a whole class of exceptions that I don't know about) the text on a scroll goes from one roll to the other. Scrolls were no longer commonly in use by Christians in Europe in the fifteenth century, when the painting was made, though I believe the Torah would still have been painstakingly written on a scroll.

(To be continued.)


  1. Lo said...

    I wish I could see it more clearly, I could help some. But it's too teeny.  


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