Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Saint Jerome in the Desert

Bartolomeo Montagna 1450 – 1523
St Jerome in the Desert
c. 1482
Tempera on panel
112,3 X 50 cm
Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan 

Bartolomeo Montagna 1450 – 1523
St Jerome in the Desert
Oil on canvas
39,7 x 29 cm
Collecció Thyssen-Bornemisza on loan to the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, Barcelona

Bartolomeo Montagna 1450 – 1523
St Jerome in the Desert
c 1500
Oil on canvas
51 x 58 cm
Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

Bartolomeo Cincani known as Bartolomeo Montagna 1450 – 1523  adopted the pseudonym "Montagna" (cf. Mantegna) from his youth

He was born near Brescia but made his name as the most important religious painter in Vicenza in the High Renaissance

He perhaps trained in Venice, where he was living in 1469. He was associated with Giovanni Bellini

Here we see three versions of St Jerome in the Desert

The Latin "desertum" originally meant an abandoned place

Four words are chiefly used in Hebrew to express the idea of desert: Midbar; 'Arabah; Horbah; Jeshimon

The word meant a place where few if any people dwelled rather than a place of particular aridity

According to James Howlett, Desert (in the Bible). In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved February 24, 2015 from New Advent
"We are told (Exodus 3:1) that Moses fed the flocks of Jethro, and led them to the interior parts of the desert. This desert was in the land of Madian, close to the Red Sea, and in it was Mount Horeb, which St. Jerome says was the same as Sinai.  
The desert to which David fled from Saul (cf. 1 Samuel 23:14) was the desert of Ziph, which lies south of the Dead Sea and Hebron. 
John the Baptist lived and taught in the desert of Judea, west of the Jordan and the Dead Sea, near Jericho. Finally, the scene of Christ's temptation (Matthew 4:1-11), of which St. Mark adds (1:13): "He was with wild beasts", was most likely in the 'arabah to the west of the Jordan. But this is only speculation."
Some hagiographies of Jerome talk of his having spent a lot of his years in the Syrian desert, and multiple artists have titled their works "St Jerome in the Desert" or in the wilderness

On the first Sunday of Lent 2009, Pope Benedict XVI said:
"St Mark introduces us into the atmosphere of this liturgical season: "The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan" (Mk 1: 12).  
In the Holy Land the Judean desert, which lies to the west of the River Jordan and the Oasis of Jericho, rises over stony valleys to reach an altitude of about 1,000 metres at Jerusalem.  
After receiving Baptism from John, Jesus entered that lonely place, led by the Holy Spirit himself who had settled upon him, consecrating him and revealing him as the Son of God. In the desert, a place of trial as the experience of the People of Israel shows, the dramatic reality of the kenosis, the self-emptying of Christ who had stripped himself of the form of God (cf. Phil 2: 6-7), appears most vividly. 
He who never sinned and cannot sin submits to being tested and can therefore sympathise with our weaknesses (cf. Heb 4: 15).  
He lets himself be tempted by Satan, the enemy, who has been opposed to God's saving plan for humankind from the outset. 
In the succinct account, angels, luminous and mysterious figures, appear almost fleetingly before this dark, tenebrous figure who dares to tempt the Lord. Angels, the Gospel says, "ministered" to Jesus (Mk 1: 13); they are the antithesis of Satan.  
"Angel" means "messenger". Throughout the Old Testament we find these figures who help and guide human beings on God's behalf"

In the three paintings by Montagna, we see the differing concepts of "desert" or wilderness in which far from the fleshpots of the Rome of his youth, St Jerome chose to reside

In Syria from about 374, for 4 or 5 years he lived as a recluse in the desert of Chalcis

In a letter to St Eustochium St Jerome wrote of his experience:
“In the remotest part of a wild and stony desert, burnt up with the heat of the scorching sun so that it frightens even the monks that inhabit it, I seemed to myself to be in the midst of the delights and crowds of Rome... In this exile and prison to which for the fear of Hell I had voluntarily condemned myself, with no other company but scorpions and wild beasts, I many times imagined myself witnessing the dancing of the Roman maidens as if I had been in the midst of them. 
My face was pallid with fasting, yet my will felt the assaults of desire: in my cold body and in my parched-up flesh, which seemed dead before its death, passion was able to live.  
Alone with this enemy, I threw myself in spirit at the feet of Jesus, watering them with my tears, and I tamed my flesh by fasting whole weeks. I am not ashamed to disclose my temptations, but I grieve that I am not now what I then was. I often joined night to day crying and beating my breast till calm returned.”
In the last two paintings the topographical features of Verona recur in altered form: the river, the ruins, the double staircase cut into the tufa, the church and the convent. 

Bartolomeo's main inspiration seems to have stemmed from a realisation that Jerome and he returned to a state of nature, converting the townscape he knew into a rustic landscape, a new reality

"And there are so many kinds of desert. There is the desert of poverty, the desert of hunger and thirst, the desert of abandonment, of loneliness, of destroyed love. There is the desert of God’s darkness, the emptiness of souls no longer aware of their dignity or the goal of human life. The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast. "

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