Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) was born in the German city of Nuremberg. Trained there as a painter and printmaker, he traveled to Italy and the Netherlands to educate himself in the leading artistic developments of his day. He soon became Europe’s foremost engraver and designer of woodcuts, a leading illustrator of books, as well as Germany’s most influential painter and theoretician.
Albrecht Dürer. St. Jerome in his Cell. Woodcut. Nuremberg, 1511.
Even when Dürer was not illustrating books, his imagery often showed an abiding interest in books as vehicles for learning and religious expression. Dürer’s woodcut of St. Jerome in his Cell, a powerful yet intimate image of a Christian theologian at work, reflects the renewed interest in biblical scholarship that spread across Europe on the eve of the Reformation. Surrounded by books, writing implements, a devotional Crucifix, and a faithful lion who guards his studious retreat, the biblical translator embodies the ideal of inspired theological study and thereby fulfills his role as the patron saint of all scholars.
As in most of his religious prints, Dürer paid careful attention to the natural appearance of his subject so as to make its contents and setting familiar and relevant to its sixteenth-century viewers. Yet he also invested his print with symbolism. The broad cardinal’s hat and fur-lined robes signify the saint’s high rank in the church hierarchy, even though the cardinalate was not instituted until several centuries after Jerome’s death in 420. The saint’s books are familiar attributes of lifelong study, but his advanced age and the hourglass behind him allude to the fleeting nature of human endeavors. Finally, the wooden Crucifix reminds Dürer’s viewers that the Christian Savior is always omnipresent.