In the Borghese Gallery is a very interesting painting by the worldwide famous and highly appreciated Italian artist Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio, dating to 1605-6 and representing San Jerome in a quite original way.
Neither represented, as usual, in a beautiful landscape meditating over the crucifix and accompanied by the lion as symbol of his firmness of character, nor in a library to symbolize his vast culture which led him to translate the Old and New Testament from Greek into Latin, here we are confronted with a strong sense of suspension between life and death rendered with just a few elements set on a dark background, as usual in Caravaggio’s mature style, to enhance through isolation as much as through the power of contrast their vivid presence.
In fact, there are three voluminous books on the table contrasting so much with their seize and apparent heavy weight with the dark emptiness of the light looking skull and the fragility of constitution of S. Jerome due to his age and his extremely sober way of life.
S. Jerome, born in 340 A.D. in what is now Hungary (Pannonia), went to Rome at the age of 20 to complete his studies, baptized by Pope Liberius, the one who commissioned the construction of the patriarchal Basilica of S. Mary the Major In Rome, where he was buried after a long life, 80 years, mainly lived as hermit or studying the Scriptures.
So he can rightly be used as the symbol of culture, as to say, the symbol of that fundamental human activity consisting in building that protective framework through which we can safely approach the burning reality of both life and death.
It seems as if with this unusual composition consisting of an interplay of vertical and horizontal lines creating the image of a weaving work, Caravaggio would like us to think that culture, and art as a consistent part of it even more, is that fabric, that only structure able to hold and protect us from harm and injury of which life is essentially made of.
Art and culture are the devices the human being carried out to face love, passion as much as anxiety or emptiness and death.
What was perfectly expressed by Nietzsche two hundred years later when saying: ” We have art so that we shall not be destroyed by the truth”.