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Attributed to Claus de Werve († 1439), an influential artist at the court of the dukes of Burgundy, this touching Virgin and Child is truly monumental. Even seated, Mary is almost four and a half feet tall and, thus, a literally larger-than-life Sedes Sapientiae. This title is given to representations of the seated Virgin with the Child Jesus on her lap because she would serve as the “throne” of “Wisdom,” incarnated in Christ. It is in this sense that the Litany of Loreto honors her with the title “Seat of Wisdom.” However, the theological basis for this title is more sophisticated. In fact, in iconography, Sedes Sapientiae would not refer to the Mother of God, but rather to the imperial throne (a Byzantine inheritance) on which she sits. Hence, it would be Mary (or more precisely, the Mother and Child) who is represented, not as the throne of Wisdom, but as Wisdom itself enthroned. In this sense, depictions of the seated Virgin and Child, without the imperial throne, are referred to as the “Virgin of Humility.”
The adorable curly-haired child we contemplate here on Mary’s lap confirms this interpretation. He himself holds on his little knees a heavy volume of the Bible which is opened to the Book of Sirach the Wise (formerly known as Ecclesiasticus). He points out to his Mother verse 9 (14, in the Vulgate) of chapter 24, which places these words in the mouth of Wisdom:
Ab initio et ante saecula creata sum
Et usque ad futurum saeculum non desinam.
Which can be translated as:
From the beginning and before the ages I was created,
And I shall never cease to be, eternally.
With a tender gaze, the Child-God indicates his Mother as the realization of this figure. How can we tell? Because the artist has inscribed the above verse in magisterial letters on the fold of Mary’s mantle.* And it is indeed Mary that the Fathers of the Church, as well as liturgical tradition, recognize as the eternal Wisdom referred to in chapter 24 of the Book of Sirach. As early as the 7th century, this text was chosen as the first reading for Masses on feasts of the Virgin Mary. And still today, it is this same chapter 24 that is claimed, among others, as the scriptural basis for the definition of the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. Let us pause a moment to meditate on its prophecies:
Wisdom sings her own praises and is honored in God,
before her own people she proclaims her glory;…
“From the mouth of the Most High I came forth
and mistlike covered the earth….
Then the Creator of all gave me his command,
and he who formed me chose the spot for my tent,
Saying, ‘In Jacob make your dwelling,
in Israel your inheritance
and among my chosen put down your roots.’
Before all ages, in the beginning he created me,
and through all ages I shall not cease to be.
I am the mother of fair love, and of fear,
and of knowledge, and of holy hope.
In me is all grace of the way and of the truth.”
To be precise, we must keep in mind that Wisdom is a figure of the Son, in the Person of the Word, the creative Word of God. But at the same time, Wisdom is also the figure of the created response to this Word, personified in the daughter of Zion par excellence, Mary of Nazareth. Thus a dizzying perspective opens before us onto the mysterious genesis of the Immaculata, willed in the same divine plan as the incarnation of Wisdom. “Sophia refers to the Logos…and also the womanly answer which receives Wisdom and brings it to fruition” (Pope Benedict XVI). Let us adore that divine plan in which the conception of the Mother of God is contemporaneous with the Creation of the world by and through the Word of God. Something the French writer Bernanos expressed when he said that Mary is “younger than sin, younger than the race from which she sprang.”
*Not visible on your cover, but you can view this entire masterpiece in greater detail following this link.
Virgin and Child (c. 1415–1417), Attributed to Claus de Werve (c. 1380–1439), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, N.Y. Photo: Public domain.
During a lifespan that crossed from the 4th to early 5th century, Saint Jerome was a priest, a monk, a pope’s secretary, a desert hermit, and head of a monastery in Bethlehem. But the Church remembers him in the canon of saints as a scholar and translator of the Bible who exemplified a holiness of life worthy of emulation. Widely known as one of the greatest of the Latin Fathers, Jerome commented on the Scriptures, weighed in on theological controversies, wrote hundreds of letters and homilies, and completed the herculean task of translating the Bible into Latin from both Greek and Hebrew. Known for his sharp tongue, intolerance of laxity, contemplations on death, and intellectual acumen, Jerome’s dedication to scholarship and profound love of Scripture affect the Christian’s experience of prayer to this day.
Jerome in his study
Though many artists have shown Jerome as the emaciated ascetic kneeling on rocks while living in a cave, Domenico Ghirlandaio painted him in a well-furnished study on the walls of the Florentine Church of Ognissanti in 1480. The initial stirrings of the Renaissance and its love of all things ancient had matured by the late 15th century, and Jerome held more than a pious interest to Renaissance thinkers. A contemporary of Saint Augustine of Hippo, Jerome fascinated Florentines for having acquired Christian knowledge and holiness in the early centuries of the Church while its feet were still dipped in classical learning. Accordingly, he is shown as a scholarly Doctor of the Church, as indicated by his dress in cardinalatial red with his cardinal’s hat on the shelf behind, even though in actuality this attire developed several centuries later.
Jerome’s small study shows a wealth of detail worthy of a scholar and translator: pens, ink, scissors, books, parchments, eyeglasses (also not yet invented in his time), and candles. Though Jerome shows a contemplative stillness, his active life is indicated as well: he holds a pen in his hand, translating Scripture into the Latin edition now known as the Vulgate. The two inkwells subtly indicate this work: both the black ink, for text, and red ink, for rubrics, have splashed against the wood of his writing desk from repeated use. He clutches a folded piece of paper in his left hand, a reference to his nearly 120 existing letters, which were particularly prized in the Renaissance for their breadth of topics and revelation of Jerome’s spiky personality. Jerome’s eyes reveal a depth of pathos, his mouth a hint of a smile, and forehead creases indicate a life of thoughtfulness and animation. The entire scene gives a combined sense of energy and weariness typical of a long life of dedicated labor.
Though Saint Jerome was an ascetic and a monk, the artistic conventions of the Renaissance show his study overflowing with objects on high shelves that give the viewer ideas to contemplate. Half-filled carafes on the upper right symbolize the perpetual virginity of the Virgin Mary, a theological position staunchly supported by Jerome in an influential treatise. A round wooden box is topped with fruit, in itself a small tableau concerning the mysteries of sin and salvation. The fruit calls to mind the poisonous apple of Adam and Eve’s fall in the Garden of Eden, the food of spiritual sickness and eternal damnation. By contrast, the round box below has been identified by scholars as a large pyx holding Eucharistic hosts, the food of salvation and the medicine of eternal life, an idea central to Jerome’s thought and writings as an answer to the sin of Adam. In a similar vein, the apothecary jar with Christ’s monogram—the IHS—likewise speaks of Christ as a spiritual remedy for fallen humanity.
Ancient saint, ancient texts
In Jerome’s time, knowledge of Hebrew was not common in Christian circles, and he insisted upon translating the Old Testament from the Hebrew rather than the Greek translation known as the Septuagint. He consulted with Jewish scholars for both linguistic and interpretive help, often facing criticism from fellow Christians for doing so. Later centuries praised him for his intellectual rigor, and Ghirlandaio’s painting is filled not only with books, but also with pieces of text on scrolls and bits of paper pinned here and there, displaying the ancient languages Jerome mastered in order to translate the Scriptures. The study of inscriptions, known as epigraphy, not only interests modern art historians, but fascinated Renaissance humanists who cherished ancient languages and learning.
A small paper on the shelf above the saint’s hand reads in accurate Greek the phrase from Psalm 51: O God, have mercy on me according to your great pity. A scroll hanging from the shelf reads in partially legible Hebrew: I call out in my anguish; my lament is troubling me. These prayers of repentance and lamentation suit the monk who lived a life of penance in the desert. Yet they also reveal the saint who sought God’s merciful entrance into the life of man, exemplified by the Latin inscription in the architectural frieze above the painting: “Illuminate us, O radiant light; otherwise the whole world would be dark.” In one of his letters, Jerome explained that after some immoral living in his youth, pangs of conscience led him to wander the Roman catacombs, visiting the underground tombs of the martyrs and apostles. The darkness moved him to ponder the depths of hell and brought to his mind a saying of the ancient poet Virgil: “everywhere horror seizes the soul and the very silence is dreadful.” Saint Jerome’s entire life can be read as a response to this darkness. In his quest for understanding, he called the light of Christ into the world and shared it with others. And in his monumental work translating Scripture, he sacramentalized the divine voice, filling the silence with the Word of God.
Denis R. McNamara
Associate Professor and Executive Director of the Center for Beauty and Culture at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan.
Saint Jerome in His Study (1480), Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449–1494), Church of Ognissanti, Florence, Italy. © Domingie & Rabatti / La Collection.