Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg as Saint Jerome

By LENNIE BENNETT, St. Pete Times art critic
Published July 3, 2005

You know the museum drill. Enter a gallery, reconnoiter, move on. Take in as much as possible, sort of like overloading a plate at a buffet.

At crowded special exhibitions, that's often the best you can do.

Permanent collections are different; around all the time, they beg for more leisurely examination.

Today we begin an occasional series deconstructing individual works at local museums. We hope we'll inspire you to find the works that give you pause.

THE SUBJECT: St. Jerome (345-420) is the pre-eminent biblical scholar of the Roman Catholic Church because of his translation of the Bible into Latin, the Vulgate version still in use. Constantly battling what he called the temptations of the flesh, he became an ideal humanist image of Christian struggle and sacrifice. Unlike many saints who died as martyrs, Jerome was elevated to sainthood because of his learned contributions to the church.

THE ARTIST: Lucas Cranach the Elder was born in 1472 into a northern Europe divided between Catholicism and Protestantism. Cranach was a close friend of reformer Martin Luther; they were godfathers to each other's sons and Cranach painted Luther many times. But he also was a German court painter who accepted commissions from Catholic clergy. He died in 1553.

THE MODEL: In this portrait, Cardinal Albrecht(1490-1545), one of Cranach's patrons, is depicted as St. Jerome. Robed in cardinal red, Albrecht looks up from his studies, seated in a finely appointed chamber that bespeaks his position - the large window, the elaborate ceiling - but has all the warmth of a monastic cell. Cranach wanted to please Albrecht, so perhaps his dour expression is meant to convey seriousness and resolve.

The lion refers to the story of a lion wandering into St. Jerome's monastery, scaring away the other monks. Jerome, noting the animal's distress, is said to have removed a thorn from its paw, and it became a tame pet. The lion was also a more general symbol of Christ's royal dignity.

The rabbit stands for a defenseless Christian who puts his faith in Christ.

An early belief was that beavers had a sac on their bodies with healing fluid but they would bite it off when threatened, so the beaver signifies the Christian who sacrifices anything interfering with his spiritual life.

The partridge is a symbol of the church, sometimes Christ himself. Remember The Twelve Days of Christmas and "a partridge in a pear tree"? The pear represented incarnate Christ (note the pear on the cardinal's table).

Peacocks stood for immortality since it was a legend that their flesh did not decay. They're tending their chicks, a reference to Christ tending his flock.

The stag represents piety and religious aspiration, referenced by Psalm 42:1: "As the hart (stag) panteth after water, so panteth my soul after thee, O God." The chandelier is made of antlers, a reinforcement of Albrecht's piety. It's hung with medallions of a griffin, a mythological beast part lion, part eagle associated with the Savior because of its strength and nobility.

The squirrel symbolizes the Holy Spirit along with spiritual meditation.

The parrot's call, "ave," was associated in the Middle Ages with Gabriel's call to Mary. The exotic bird also was a status symbol.

On the table along with the pear are grapes, a symbol of the blood of Christ and the Eucharist, and an apple, an Old Testament symbol of man's fall from grace that became one of Christ as the new Adam in the New Testament. Note that the squirrel is eating a grape as if taking communion.

Also surrounding Albrecht are testaments to his devotion and allegiance to the Catholic faith: a crucifix and a portrait of Madonna and child.

Objects reflecting his status include an elaborate chalice, finely bound books and delicate cups. The red cape and hat of his high office are draped on a table. The hat also appears frequently in portraits of St. Jerome.

MATERIALS: Cranach used oil paint, which was becoming more common than the egg tempera favored in the Middle Ages.

MORE ST. JEROME: The Ringling Museum has many other paintings of St. Jerome, including one by Peter Paul Rubens that faces the Cranach in the same gallery. You can find them all by their titles, but also by some of the identifying symbols, especially the lion and the red hat.

Sources: Joanna Weber, associate curator of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art and author of "Of Lions and Red Hats," a book about the many depictions of the saint in the museum's collection; George Ferguson, "Signs & Symbols in Christian Art."

Look at and Play with the Interactive painting, explaining the above symbols