Tuesday, 27 January 2015
Invisible translator revealed
He was invisible. I toured Room 62 and failed to spot him. Rendez-vous at 4pm. They say the best translators shouldn't be seen. Evidently, Jerome was wary of the spotlight.
I looked elsewhere. A friendly guide sent me back to Room 62. On closer inspection, I spotted him. He had been there all along between Christ Blessing and Portrait of a Man. All three painted by Antonello da Messina (active 1456, died 1479).
Our guide Matthew arrived. The National Gallery's 10-minute talk on the Saint Jerome in his study painting began. If Antonello hadn't taken some artistic licence, the Patron Saint of Translators would have remained invisible. The artist removed the roof and walls to reveal him reading in his study.
St Jerome translated the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into Latin. His version of the Bible is known as the Vulgate. He was recognised as a renowned scholar even in his lifetime (c342-420 AD). His sainthood was not a result of martyrdom. He was not a popular man in his time. He fell out of favour with the Pope and is often depicted in the wilderness. Antonello's painting shows him studying in a monastery in Bethlehem.
The painting's contents fascinate art historians. Appropriately for a translator, the picture is full of double meanings.
The peacock can be interpreted in two ways. In the 15th Century it was believed that peacock flesh did not rot, suggesting the immortality of Christ. However, the tail feathers are symbols of pride.
The Partridge is a symbol for promiscuity. Yet, it was also believed that a partridge could always find its mother within a large covey. The partridge can make the right choice and recognise the Truth.
The cat is a symbol for heresy. Able to see in the dark, the cat also symbolises the ability to understand the Truth.
There is a marked contrast in light and dark, good and bad. Birds represent souls flying up to heaven on the right-hand side of the painting. They are noticeably absent on the left-side, as are people on the right.
And what of St Jerome's trusty lion companion? While St Jerome is a genuine historical figure, it seems that tale of him removing a thorn from a lion's paw is a Golden Legend.
Where's the beard?
The absence of St Jerome's beard is an unsolved mystery. Possibly a concealed portrait? Could it be the likeness of the person who commissioned the painting? We will never know.
Invisibility, double meanings, learning, understanding, unanswered questions... all sound so familiar to a translator.
If you wish to find the elusive translator for yourself, St Jerome can usually be found in his picture frame in Room 62, in the Sainsbury's Wing of Britain's National Gallery. Other artists have also captured his image there.
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