St. Jerome in a Dark Chamber

Rembrandt (Rembrandt van Rijn) Dutch

Not on view

In this etching depicting St. Jerome, who is remembered chiefly for his translation of the bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin in the fourth century CE, Rembrandt situates the figure in a contemporary study with a spiral staircase – an apt metaphor for the twisting and turning thought process involved in extended periods of mental exertion.

Small details that allude to the identity of the subject, such as the skull and cardinal hat on the wall behind him are barely legible within the intricate net of lines. Jerome’s lion companion, which is visible beneath the desk in some impressions of this image ( see NGA 1994.60.52), disappears completely here. The half-illuminated crucifix leaning against the windowpanes suggests that the light streaming into the room is a divine radiance, offering another clue that the figure we see is a saint in the midst of spiritual work. At the same time, Jerome’s relative ambiguity in this print would have allowed for a 17th-century audience to identify with him. St. Jerome holds a pen in one hand while he props up his head with the other, conveying the exhaustion caused by his mentally straining work. In Rembrandt’s closely related portrayal of a student by candlelight (66.521.17), the subject also rests his head in his hand while studying at a dimly lit desk. Together these two prints draw a parallel between historical and religious intellectuals and contemporary scholars.

Although the dark atmosphere of this etching might appear to be the result of plate tone (broadly applied ink left on the metal plate), it is instead the product of a remarkably dense network of etched and engraved lines. Rembrandt’s explorations of tone in printmaking can be seen as a precursor to the invention of mezzotint (56.605.14).

Tatianna Spotorno, April 21, 2023

St. Jerome in a Dark Chamber, Rembrandt (Rembrandt van Rijn) (Dutch, Leiden 1606–1669 Amsterdam), Etching, engraving, and drypoint; second of three states

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