The Price of Knowledge

Saint Jerome Writing Caravaggio

What did you get on Black Friday? Did you get some household goods you’ve been putting off, finish your Christmas shopping, or buy a gift for yourself? I bought a print of the above painting as my wife and I had been talking earlier in the day and mentioned how blank the walls were and she gave me permission to purchase art to hang on our walls. I have always liked Caravaggio and the painting of Saint Jerome Writing seemed perfect to hang in the room that is to be my office.

If you do not know who Saint Jerome is then don’t feel bad no one does without having to look it up. If you don’t have time to Google it outside of this blog post then I will tell you. Saint Jerome translated and revised the bible into a version known as The Vulgate which at the Council of Trent became the canonical Latin version of the bible.

The Caravaggio painting depicts Saint Jerome hard at work, his eyes fixed upon a passage in Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, or Old Latin and his right hand translating it into the Latin of the 4th century. Saint Jerome is hunched over and weathered with a long white beard, bald head, and scraggly arms. His task has clearly taken a toll on him, and the skull to the far left of the painting sits ominously foreboding that death is close at hand.

The interesting thing about this painting and the artist Caravaggio is Caravaggio here paints a depiction of the price of art and/or knowledge and he himself died from lead poisoning from the paint he used. Saint Jerome in translating the bible into a more common version of Latin has simultaneously brought knowledge to more people and paid a hefty price for doing so.

This is why it is the perfect painting to hang in an office. It shows the price that knowledge brings. It is a reminder that suffering and toil are mankind’s reward for taking on knowledge in the first place. It is a good reminder that the pursuit of knowledge, the construction of art, is mostly a thankless task.

Perhaps on the other wall I will hang a copy of the W.B. Yeats’ poem Adam’s Curse whereupon he says,

I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,   
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.   
Better go down upon your marrow-bones   
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones   
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;   
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet   
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen   
The martyrs call the world.’

and thus lays out the price of art and knowledge. To toil for hours and to be thought an idler. To be thought of as less than useful by most of the world even though without art the world would be a much lesser place.

Caravaggio depicts Saint Jerome hunched over producing a translation that would change the world. Saint Jerome is the first person to translate the 38 books of the Old Testament directly from Hebrew into Latin, and as I said before I doubt many reading this knew of Saint Jerome. His task was a thankless one, but that is the price of knowledge.

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