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The Cover
April 5, 2000

St Jerome Reading

Author Affiliations
 

The Cover Section Editor: M. Therese Southgate, MD, Senior Contributing Editor.

JAMA. 2000;283(13):1659. doi:10.1001/jama.283.13.1659

Giovanni Bellini (c 1427-1516) was the last and longest-lived of the great Bellini painting dynasty of Venice. He was son of Jacopo, half-brother of Gentile, and brother-in-law of Andrea Mantegna, and his subjects ranged from raucous mythologies such as The Feast of the Gods and The Infant Bacchus (JAMA covers, November 22/29, and December 13, 1995) to solemn altarpieces and Madonnas. Giovanni was, in fact, known officially as a Madonnieri, the best in Venice. But, to 21st-century eyes, it is perhaps his landscapes that are the most captivating. Not recognized forms in his day, the landscapes were disguised under the rubric of "devotional works." They comprise whole vistas of rocks and trees and animals spread across the picture surface, to which a tiny St Francis or a Christ figure or a St Jerome has been added, almost as an afterthought. In St Jerome Reading (cover ), for example, the saint is consigned to the lower right corner, a footnote inserted within the text to defend its existence.

Bellini's choice of subject is inspired. Jerome, a fourth-century scholar, faced a dilemma similar to that of the Renaissance humanists: how to reconcile the secular and the sacred, or, in Jerome's case, the Word and the world. Jerome deeply loved the beauty of the ancient Greek and Roman literature, but, in his task of translating the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into the Latin vulgate, he faced doctrinal constraints as well as stylistic constraints. In a sense, Bellini's problem was the same: how to paint a doctrinally correct painting and yet glorify the beauties of nature, which was his true subject. His solution, like his choice of subject, was inspired. As the title signifies, it is a devotional painting. In reality, however, the work is a secular landscape, but one filled with both Christian and pagan iconographic symbols: water, rabbits, hyssop, a falcon, a squirrel, and a lizard, the last perhaps less ominous than the snake commonly found in garden scenes. Bellini's painting is also unusual in that most artists of the time painted St Jerome as a Renaissance scholar, dressed in magnificent robes and seated at a desk in a richly appointed study (JAMA cover, April 4, 1966).

In this relatively small panel, Bellini takes the eye on a remarkable journey through both space and time. Entering at the lower left, where the dark square of the cistern with reeds growing within it symbolizes the baptismal waters, the eye is attracted diagonally and to the right to another dark shape, the roughly triangular mouth of the cave. From there, it is deflected left in an almost horizontal line to rest, but only momentarily, on the white rabbit at the geometric center of the painting. (The rabbit invokes additional interest when it is discovered to be nuzzling an almost invisible brown rabbit, camouflaged.) From there, the eye travels straight up, almost to the top of the picture, where a large bird, made visible by its white breast, can be seen in its perch on a branch. Almost immediately, the eye, led by a hanging branch, drops back, this time to rest on a ruined tower silhouetted against a deep blue sky, a remnant, perhaps, of past glory. A continuation of the vertical drop leads straight down to the rabbits again. This time, the whiteness of the rabbit pulls the eye to the white book at the right and at last to Jerome, who wears a white garment.

Almost unnoticed in the eye's journey is a tiny, perky squirrel that sits on the grassy ledge above Jerome, and a lion's face at his left hand, the latter doing double duty as the iconographic symbol for both Bellini's native Venice and Jerome as well. Flowering hyssop, visible as white dots on the squirrel's ledge, has a practical as well as a symbolic meaning: used as a purgative, it also signifies innocence regained. The lizard, at Jerome's right knee, sometimes denoted logic, one of the seven liberal arts. Finally, Bellini pays homage to the ancient Greeks by his observance of the Golden Section: he frames the saint and the glowing desert rocks in approximately the right one-third of the picture space. The small panel contains an entire universe, both natural and man-made, as well as time past, present, and future: desert, river, sea, sky, and forest, as well as ancient ruins, a bridge, and, in the far distance, a modern city. The work is framed by an arch, which becomes in effect a window to the world outside, the latter a favorite device of Renaissance painting.

Bellini lived a long life and was the most famous painter of his day. Within the span of a single lifetime, he took painting from the aloof, formal Gothic style of his father to a warm, intimate, and, above all, colorful style that humanized both man and nature. During his lifetime he was praised by Dürer; the Italian poet Ariosto mentions him in the same breath as Leonardo. He was excelled only by Titian and Giorgione, both of whom learned their art from him and went on from there.

Giovanni Bellini(c 1427-1516)St Jerome Reading

1480/1490. Venetian. Oil on panel. 48.9 × 39.4 cm.

Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC (http://www.nga.gov); Samuel H. Kress Collection.

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