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Spencer Collection Book of the Month: Correspondence of St. Jerome


Angel from the Spencer "Jerome"Angel from the Spencer "Jerome"

When I started blogging last May, I hoped to post frequently, but my "day job" of cataloging the books I'd like to write about kept getting in the way. This year, I made a New Year's resolution to blog more regularly. To get started, I thought I would pick a "Spencer Collection Book of the Month" at the beginning of each month and write a short post about it—just enough to share with my readers some of the things that make it special, because the Spencer Collection is a Special Collection at the New York Public Library, and so all of our books are special. Or above average, anyway. (For those not familiar with the Spencer Collection, see my first post: "A Passenger to Remember.")

The book I have selected for January is a fairly ordinary imprint, as far as the content goes: Epistole di S. Girolamo dottore della Chiesa, the first Italian edition of the correspondence of St. Jerome, published in Venice in 1562. St. Jerome, patron saint of librarians, is best known for his translation of the Bible into Latin; he is responsible for much of the version known as the Vulgate, the official Latin text of the Holy Scriptures for many centuries. You can read about the saint in the Catholic Encyclopedia or the Jewish Encyclopedia, but for a good (and well-illustrated) overview, in this case I would recommend Wikipedia. At least two digital copies of this edition of Jerome's correspondence are freely available on the Internet on the sites of the institutions holding them (1, 2) and via Google Books. Aside from two printer's devices (1, 2)—logos, we would call them—and some decorated initial letters, it is not illustrated.

Today, however, I'm not going to write about the book, but its cover. The Spencer Collection copy is in an elaborately gilt binding of dark burgundy morocco leather (a kind of goatskin much favored for luxury bindings), probably from around the time of publication or later on in the sixteenth century. To see a sampling of what these bindings usually look like, go to the British Library's Database of Bookbindings and copy and paste the following into the search window (all at once): ITALY and GOATSKIN and GOLD and 16c and ALL OVER DESIGN. You'll get about 60 examples; here is a link to one of them in enlarged format. It is already quite unusual in that it includes several naturalistic details and a human figure (an angel with a trumpet). Most Italian bindings from this period are decorated almost exclusively with stylized foliage and flowers and geometric designs and curlicues; a Psalterium Romanum in Milan's Biblioteca Nazionale Braidense makes lovely use of a carnation tool similar to one employed on our volume. However, the Spencer "Jerome" offers much more to the discerning eye. It looks like this (the original is about 9" tall by 6 1/2" wide; the front and the back are decorated identically):

Epistole di S. Girolamo, Spencer Collection copyEpistole di S. Girolamo, Spencer Collection copy

I count thirteen different human (or angelic) figures here, and what is even more remarkable, every one is appropriate to the contents of the book enclosed within these covers. That was by no means usual at the time. For instance, in the four corners we have the four Evangelists, each recognizable by his emblem (the original figures are about 1 3/4" high):

St. John with his emblem, the eagleSt. John with his emblem, the eagle

  St. Matthew with his emblem, the angelSt. Matthew with his emblem, the angelSt. Mark with his emblem, the lionSt. Mark with his emblem, the lionSt. Luke with his emblem, the oxSt. Luke with his emblem, the ox

(For the emblems of the Evangelists, and other saintly iconography, see How to Distinguish the Saints in Art by their Costumes, Symbols, and Attributes, by Arthur de Bles. There's a free copy online at the HathiTrust Digital Library.)

The overall design scheme is the common Renaissance pattern of a border enclosing a central panel delineated by straight rules. Within the border, besides the Evangelists, we have (top and bottom) the Holy Spirit represented as a radiant dove and the Lamb of God with halo, cross and banner, and (left and right) the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin in attitudes representing the Annunciation of the birth of Jesus. The central panel stars none other than Jerome himself. He is often depicted anachronistically, as here, in a cardinal's robes (there were no cardinals in the Church until much later), and almost always shown accompanied by a tame lion that reclines at his feet.

The story of the saint who made friends with a lion after removing a thorn from its paw was probably originally applied to St. Gerasimus, and became attached to the better-known Jerome because his Latin name, Hieronymus or Geronimus, is similar to "Gerasimus"; see Butler's Lives of the Saints, entry for March 5. Here the saint is represented standing on an ornate pedestal, with angels kneeling on either side; beneath a canopy over his head float cherubs' heads and six-pointed stars. Here's a detail:

St. Jerome with angelsSt. Jerome with angels

Of the four remaining figures, the two ladies on either side of the pedestal probably represent Judith from the Old Testament (left) and the patron saint of musicians, Cecilia, with her lute (right). Beneath the pedestal, the two bearded gentlemen symbolize the Old and New Testaments, shown in a conversation that St. Jerome made possible, because they both can now speak Latin.

The Old and New Testaments in conversationThe Old and New Testaments in conversation

This remarkable volume arrived in the Spencer Collection too late to be considered for inclusion the current exhibition Three Faiths (through Sunday, February 27, 2011, in the Schwarzman Building). However, if my post has inspired you to want to contemplate the history and iconography of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in greater detail, I hope you'll visit the exhibition. It's one of many great free exhibitions and other programs that are always on offer to the public throughout the Library's 90 locations. If you like what we do, please don't forget that we rely on your support in order to keep doing it. The Spencer Collection, too, would not exist without the generosity and civic-mindedness of its founder and namesake, William A. Spencer. (See, once again, my post, "A Passenger to Remember.")


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Kathie, Thanks for a beautiful post. Hope you find the time to continue educating us. The depth of the cover is marvelous. Cheers and best regards!

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