Haven’t forgotten about cat/Halloween posts. Naked Guy just – appeared to me in a vision – or something.
Well, my sister, the one who was recently widowed, rang me from Canada. As part of her recovery she has signed on for an art degree course made up of a series of modules. Currently she is engaged upon a compulsory ‘painting’ module; something she had been dreading all summer.
Apparently, when the weekly project was announced – to copy an old master entitled Saint Jerome and the Angel by someone called Remi, there were grimaces all round. I’d have grimaced too. However, she completed it and, apart from getting his right leg a trifle too short in my opinion (I didn’t tell her) she made a really good job of it. I was going to try to insert her painting in here, but then I thought it wouldn’t be fair as I hadn’t asked her, and it might accidentally ‘identify’ her. Her angel a wee bit more spikey and etherial. We agreed the Remi angel was a bit of a porker. Maybe it’s just the draperies.
Anyway, we spent an hour or so on the phone discussing the Remi painting. I found it on my Fire after several false starts. No, not that one… it’s an old naked guy in a red curtain! But they were all old naked guys in red curtains. Everybody in the world seemed to have done their version of him. He’s got a leg, that pokes out… The same leg that’s a bit too short in her version.
I’m not sure what I’m going to do about the other leg. He doesn’t seem to have another leg…
We perused the painting together, and located it. It’s just a heel and part of a foot, really, and it looks for all the world like part of that improbable red drapery, but it is where a foot would be, given a knee where it is, beneath the book.
Sister and I tend to look at things differently. She looks at pictures like blocks of colour, and shade, and artistic stuff. I, not being gifted in that direction, look at them like stories. I want to know why stuff is there at all.
What’s that little pot? I asked. Next to the skull (why the skull?) there is a little black pot. Thinking about it, we decided it was an ink pot, which would go with the scrawny little feather in his right hand, which must be a quill.
Why is he reading?
We realised he was not reading. He was writing stuff down. In those days, presumably, paper or parchment would be bound into ‘books’ or ledgers.
What is he writing down?
Whatever the angel is telling him. Look – their eyes are locked, they are in rapt concentration on one another. She is teaching him something – look at her hands, she is making a series of points, enumerating them.
I don’t particularly like the painting. Why is her hair swept back by some invisible wind, whilst his beard isn’t being swept forward? Why does that left foot look so much like a piece of red curtain? He’s got the ‘flabby’ aspect of the ancient St Jerome right, but then why are his ancient arms and shoulders so magnificently muscled? Why is he naked in any case? Who sits about in a curtain? Why are her wings that dingy grey? What’s the point of having an angel if she’s – depressing?
This morning, out of curiosity, I decided to find out a bit more about Saint Jerome. He seems to have led a rather muddled real life but has a correspondingly vivid legendary life. He was the one who translated the Bible from Greek into Latin, producing what is now known as the Vulgate Bible. He also wrote a string of Commentaries on books of the Bible, and it is these that the angel is helping him with.
(He’s also the saint who, legendarily, removed the thorn from that poor lion’s paw. I love him for that, even though he only did it legendarily. Being a cat-person, if I came across a lion with a thorn in its poor old paw I would feel irresistibly drawn to try to help it. And no doubt the lion would eat me. )
I like enjoy this painting much more than Old Naked Guy. Look at that lion! Oh, my poor paw! its face is saying. I love it. I suspect a real lion would be bigger than that in relation to a human being, but maybe not.
Further research. Like many saints, Jerome tends to be depicted with a number of iconic objects, among them red garments (explains the curtain), a book and writing implements. Later – not in this painting – there were also eyeglasses. This is because in his Commentary to Ezechiel he complains that:
I am quite unable to go through the Hebrew books with such light as I have at night, for even in the full light of day they are hidden from my eyes owing to the smallness of the letters.
This made me smile. Suddenly I liked Old Naked Guy a lot better. Whilst researching for my previous post (the one about Cat’s Cradle) I had to get out the dreaded magnifying glass to read the tiny index. An admission of defeat. I am catching up with Old Guy. Short sighted, I was always comforted that I could read even tiny stuff if I took off my ‘eyeglasses’. Those days are definitely gone.
Addendum: Many, many decades ago I bought a postcard in the souvenir shop a posh London art gallery. I couldn’t afford to buy anything else. It was lurking around for ages, but then, like most of my possessions, it got lost. I loved Dürer – still do – and liked the look of the quiet old gentleman, with his casually sleeping lion and sleeping dog. How quiet it all looked. I so wanted to be in that sunlit room, sitting on one of those wooden benches. And it’s just dawned on me – that was St Jerome too.