My Favourite Painting: Jan Morris

'I love his cheerful study, books and bric-à-brac everywhere'

The Vision of St Augustine 1502–07 by Vittore Carpaccio (1460/5–1523/26) Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, Venice. Bridgeman Images.

Jan Morris says:
‘I love this happy picture. I strongly sympathise with the saint, who is evidently racking his brain for an adjective. I love his cheerful study, books and bric-à-brac everywhere, and the little dog dying to get the old boy to go for a walk. No matter that the identity of the sage is disputed– and that the dog was originally meant to be a cat–I love it all anyway!’

Jan Morris is an historian, author and travel writer.

Art critic John McEwen comments:
‘John Stefanidis also selected this cycle (July 1), so suffice to say that the picture can be seen in the old and modest Dalmatian scuole of San Giorgio. Jan Morris’s own Venice and the late J. G. Links’s Venice for Pleasure are classics, and both authors deplore the renaming of the picture as The Vision of St Augustine instead of St Jerome in his Study, following a reinterpretation suggested by Helen J. Roberts in 1959.

She pointed out that a bishop’s mitre and crozier can be seen, and that Jerome, although he was a great doctor of the Church and patron saint of translators, librarians and encyclopaedists, was never a bishop. Also, he is famous for his pet lion, whose undying love he had earned by removing a thorn from one of its paws. ‘Nevertheless,’ writes Links, corroborating the Morris line, ‘I pass over this new attempt by art historians to deprive us of our most cherished traditions with the contempt it deserves.’

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In fairness to Roberts, the subject is still Jerome, as it is said to show the story of St Augustine writing to his great contemporary, unaware that at that very moment he had died in Bethlehem. A bright light filled Augustine’s cell and Jerome’s voice reprimanded him for the contents of the letter, which sought Jerome’s opinion about Augustine’s plan to write a tract on the bliss of souls in Paradise. Eternal happiness was beyond the imagining of any mere mortal, said the voice. Thus the picture’s final position in the cycle makes sense, as Jerome’s first supernatural appearance.’

This article was first published in Country Life, September 16, 2009