Thursday, March 3, 2011

Written by Saint Jerome the sarcastic

Saint Jerome in Meditation, painted in 1605
by Caravaggio. Skull symbolizes detachment
from the world. Red garments symbolize his 
position as bishop. | Click to enlarge.

Saint Jerome was one of the most prolific writers in the early Christian church. He translated the New Testament from Greek to Latin and most of the Old Testament from Hebrew to Latin. His translations are still in use today.

Saint Jerome was an inveterate letter writer, whose works not only provide insight into spiritual matters but also into the times in which he lived. He is known for his great body of opinions, reviews and commentaries. He was a vigorous champion of his beliefs and could be eloquent and often quite sarcastic in expressing his views.

Some 1,077 years after he died, a collection of his commentaries on major and minor prophets contained in the Bible were gathered together and edited by Bernardinus Gladiolus and published by two Italian brothers, Joannes and Gregarious de Gregarious in Venice in 1497.

A copy of that book, with the formidable title Expositiones Diui Hieronimi in Hebraicas questiones super Genesim necnon super duodecim Prophetas minores et quatuor maiores nouiter impresse cum priuilegio, is in the collection of rare and unusual books at Lighthouse Books, ABAA. The slide show above depicts some of the pages in this amazing volume, with illustrated initial letters throughout.

The book is an excellent example of foliation, the practice of numbering only the front sides of folios, which continued in popular used until about 1550.

Saint Jerome, who was born Eusebius Hieronymus Sophronius, grew up in a small town near the ancient Roman city of Aquileia, at the head of the Adriatic Sea in northeastern Italy. His father was a wealthy Christian and Jerome was well educated.

He was sent to Rome as a young man and excelled in his studies. As is typical of college students, he reveled in wine and pleasure and worldliness. He was a voracious reader of secular literature. But when he was 22, Jerome was baptized by Pope Liberius. Stricken by conscience, he began to passionately pursue a life of spiritual exploration.

This eventually took him on many travels throughout present day France, Greece, Turkey and Syria. He arrived in Antioch, on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea just northeast of Cyprus, then went into the desert to pursue an austere lifestyle and study Hebrew. Three friends accompanied him. Two eventually died and the third returned to Rome. Jerome stayed and learned from monks living in the region.

It was here that Jerome had a vivid dream of himself amid the lustful pleasures of Rome, making him realize that he had not dedicated himself enough to God. He increased his efforts, renouncing his secular reading altogether.

After four years in the desert, Jerome moved around a bit more. He lived in Jerusalem and visited the places that figured into the life of Christ. He continued to write, voicing his opinions on all manner of ecclesiastical matters. He moved to Antioch and, against his will, was ordained by Bishop Paulinus. He secured permission to continue his austere lifestyle there, but eventually he returned to Rome and served as personal secretary to Pope Damasus I. It was there that he undertook the revision of Latin Bible. Saint Jerome had quick temper and a flair for writing scathing rebuttals to anyone who attacked the Church.

After the death of Damasus, Saint Jerome finally settled in Bethlehem and lived out his days there in a cave. Saint Jerome lived to be 78 years old. His remains were initially buried in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem but were moved in the 13th century to Vatican City in Rome.

He is the patron saint of librarians, translators and schoolchildren.

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