A distinguished painter and publisher as well as a designer of prints, tapestries and stained glass, Pieter Coecke van Aelst is one of the most fascinating and celebrated artists of the 16th-century Netherlands, who served as court painter to both Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Mary of Hungary. Recently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a sweeping exhibition – the first devoted exclusively to Coecke's art – explored the artist in a thorough and meaningful way. In the catalogue, Elizabeth Cleland notes that Coecke was lauded by contemporary artists, theorists, and writers: “Lodovico Guicciardini called him 'great';...Georg Braun described him as 'most excellent'; [and] in 1604 Karel van Mander celebrated him as 'ingenious and knowledgeable'” (E. Cleland, Grand Design: Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Renaissance Tapestry, exh. cat., New York, 2014, p. 2). This exquisite panel is a testament to Coecke's skill as a painter, and is, particularly in light of renewed interest in the artist, an important reappearance on the market.
Saint Jerome was a Doctor of the Catholic Church, most famous for his translation of the Bible into the Latin Vulgate. As here, Jerome is often pictured as the archetypal scholar, surrounded by the objects of his profession and the red hat indicative of his rank as Cardinal. The spectacles, designed to sharpen the power of the eyes, signify Jerome's contribution to Christian theology and his refinement of its essential text, while the skull to which he points conspicuously is both a symbol of the seat of thought and a reminder of death. The candle, balanced precariously on the ledge, also represents the fragility of life and serves too as a further reminder of the possibility of spiritual illumination, underscoring the themes of mortality and salvation at the heart of the present image.
The iconographic imperatives to the viewer to make good choices during his or her time on earth are enhanced by the Latin inscription along the back wall: “PUTASNE MORTU[US] HO[MO] RURSUM VIVAT”. A quote from the Book of Job, which Jerome famously studied, this roughly translates as, “If a man dies, shall he live again?” Jerome interpreted this passage as a message of uncertainty regarding the eventual end of man's labors and sufferings, which according to Christian theology would occur at the Last Judgment. An episode from the Saint's life records that, while in the wilderness, Jerome heard trumpets sounding the Last Judgment and looked up to see a cross with Christ's body before him. We can be sure that the crucifix in the present image alludes to this story, and thus serves as another reminder of this crucial aspect of Catholic belief. It may perhaps be suggested that the Bible at left is also a reference to mankind's eventual salvation: open to a page with verses from the Gospel of Matthew describing Christ's entrance into the earthly world, it is in stark contrast to the extinguished candle at right, which may allude to the Savior's violent departure from it and the ensuing redemption of earthly sinners.
As Maryan Ainsworth has pointed out (op. cit., pp. 70-72), the figure of Saint Joseph in Coecke’s Leuven Museum Holy Family relates the painting to Albrecht Dürer’s famous drawing of an elderly man, now in the Albertina, Vienna (fig. 1). Dürer made the drawing, which shows a bearded, wizened man lost in contemplation, supporting the weight of his head in the palm of his hand, as preparation for his own Saint Jerome during his 1521 trip to the Netherlands. Dürer's painting was much admired by contemporary Netherlandish painters like Joos van Cleve and Quentin Massys, who adapted it for their own compositions. Bernard van Orley, who repeated the motif of a man holding his head in his hand in his 1522 Holy Family (Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid), clearly also knew Dürer’s work, and may have shared the designs with Coecke while the younger artist was under his tutelage. It obviously made a strong impression on Coecke, who repeated the motif in reverse in the Leuven Museum Holy Family, which dates to c. 1530-1535. The present work is a more faithful study of the German master’s invention, and may date to somewhat earlier. It relates most closely to a compositionally similar Saint Jerome by Coecke, recorded by Marlier as formerly in the collection of L.R. Piovano, Turin (G. Marlier, op. cit., fig. 199).
The Metropolitan exhibition has also shed new light on Coecke’s myriad artistic talents, presenting him for the first time as an “exceptionally gifted and more than occasionally in demand...designer of decorative objects”. As such he is, “with the exception of Jan Gossaert,…the first major Netherlandish artist known to have designed for the decorative arts”. Stijn Alsteens, who has recently attributed a watercolor drawing in the collection of the Princes of Waldburg-Wolfegg to Coecke, points out that very few such objects made in the Netherlands from the early to middle 16th-century survive, and that Coecke’s drawing, along with the astounding luxury objects he painted into many of his compositions, serve as “particularly precious record[s] of the quality of the decorative arts in the Netherlands in the decades before 1550” (op. cit., p. 82). It is easy to speculate that the intricate clock hanging above Jerome and the golden wash basin in the niche at right, which reappear in the ex-Piovano picture, might have been based on Coecke's own designs.