Today’s blog post is loosely inspired by The Twelve Days of Christmas carol. You know, the one, “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…”, and so on and so forth – a whole host of doves, hens, swans, prancing lords and ladies, and, if that wasn’t enough, basically an entire marching band to top it all off. By the end of the song, the receiver of said presents is left with a pile of gifts so extravagant and nonsensical that you can imagine the only option left to them is to start the world’s first Avian Travelling Circus…
We can all agree that the gifts are a little bit mad – I mean, who needs eight milkmaids for Christ’s sake?? But despite that (and maybe because of it), many of us will enjoy singing this carol wholeheartedly every year, and possibly imagine what we would include in the list instead. We’re certainly not the first to do so. The Twelve Days of Christmas was first published in 1780, so it’s appeared in many different shapes and forms over the last 240 years. In some cases, the order of the presents is slightly different, in one nineteenth-century version the gifts are from “my mother” rather than “my true love”, sometimes the partridge prefers to perch in a juniper tree, and in 1882 the gift-giver goes completely off the rails and presents his or her true love with nine roaring bulls… Merry Christmas?
For the purposes of this post, however, I will be sticking to the “traditional” progression of gifts, so today, on this first day of Christmas, let’s go and find a partridge.
Saint Jerome in His Study, c.1475, by Antonello da Messina
So, I did say that the post would be loosely based on the song. Forgive me, but unfortunately partridges in pear trees don’t come up exceedingly often in the historical narrative…
Today we’re going to be talking about Saint Jerome in his Study, painted by Antonello da Messina around 1475, which you can see in the National Gallery in London.
Now, Saint Jerome in His Study by Antonello da Messina may not seem like an obvious choice (and you’d be right), but if you look to the foreground of the painting, on the left hand side, we have quite a prominent little partridge! Arguably more prominent than the lion, which St. Jerome is more famously associated with, almost lost in the shadows under the arch on the right. St. Jerome has close ties to the lion because, according to legend, he befriended the wounded beast by removing a thorn from his paw – this may also be why Antonello has depicted the lion with one paw raised gingerly in the air. After helping the lion, he became St. Jerome’s dedicated servant, following him day and night and doing everything he asked. A symbol of Christianity’s victory over even the most fearsome of nature’s creatures.
(Photos: National Gallery)
Looking at the scene more generally, we can see St. Jerome in his study. St. Jerome was born in the fourth-century, he was highly educated and is probably most famous within Christian circles for translating the Bible into Latin. A translation known as the Vulgate and still the one used by the Catholic church well over a millennium later. This is why St. Jerone is often painted reading or studying, surrounded by books and manuscripts, and why he’s often portrayed in red cardinal robes. In Antonello’s painting, you can also see the wide-brimmed cardinal’s hat on the chest behind him.
Yes, valid question. Why would he be painted like that if the position of cardinal didn’t even exist in his day? Well, it is the easiest way to show that he is a significant figure within the Catholic church. St. Jerome’s choice of seat – a cathedra – is a further indication of that because it is a special chair normally reserved for bishops.
The room that we’re looking into is a lofty, Gothic, cathedral-like space. Possibly a reference to the monastery that St. Jerome founded in Bethlehem in the late fourth-century, as well as an allusion to St. Jerome’s ascetic lifestyle. He led a life of extreme simplicity and abstinence.
It is a very intimate, peaceful scene. St. Jerome on his own, the surrounding gloom, a cat napping at the edge of the platform on the left. You can imagine the only sound is the occasional rustle of a turning page. This sense of isolation is further emphasised by Antonello’s decision to frame his painting with this honey-coloured stone archway. It makes us, as the viewer, feel as if we’re peering into the secluded, studious sanctuary which St. Jerome has created. We’re on the outside, so we don’t have to worry about disrupting the scene.
Similarly on the outside with us are the birds on the ledge. We’ve already mentioned the partridge, but I’m sure the peacock has not escaped your attention. The peacock is traditionally used in art as a symbol of Christ’s immortality. There was an ancient belief that the flesh of the peacock never decayed, even after death. The partridge in this instance is a more complicated symbol and has caused some debate amongst art historians. I know! Who’d have thought a little partridge could cause so much stress? But, like myself, art historians are obsessed with the details, so stick with me.
A simple, surface explanation is that Antonello has included the partridge as a symbol of truth and loyalty. Historically, our crazy zoological theories didn’t end with immortal peacocks, it was also believed that partridges could always recognise their mother’s call and would return to her if they heard it. Aka truth and loyalty.
The partridge, however, was also thought to be a very dishonest bird which complicates this theory. It was believed that the female partridge had the tendency to steal eggs from other birds. This is referenced in the Bible, in Jeremiah 17.11, which mentions the “partridge that hatches eggs it did not lay” being like someone who obtains their wealth via unjust means. Their riches will eventually desert them, just like the partridge chicks who hear the call of their true mother, and the person will be left with nothing.
So how does this fit into Antonello’s scene of St. Jerome? Well, there’s one theory put forward by P.H. Jolly that Antonello has split the painting into two halves: the path to salvation represented on the right and the worldly temptations of daily life on the left. This is further reinforced, somewhat strangely, by the sleeping cat on the left. In Medieval painting, the cat was used to imply qualities including, and not limited to, laziness, lust, deception, and betrayal. They were considered creatures of the devil. I mean, it’s not that far off the modern theory that our fiendish felines are constantly planning world domination and our imminent downfall – we’re onto you, kitties.
Returning to our painting, the division between two halves is further reflected in the views through the windows. On the right hand side, the landscape is a hilly, fifteenth-century European wilderness. No other people and a lush, green paradise. The path to salvation as St. Jerome theorised it: via a simple, solitary life.
Now, you’d be correct in thinking that the opposite side isn’t exactly a hellhole. It’s still a flourishing, verdant landscape, but it’s a lot more cultivated and it’s comparatively teeming with people. People on horseback, some women strolling by the river, a couple in a boat. Maybe it’s not meant to look like your traditional temptation-ridden doomscape. Maybe it’s meant to show how easy it is to get swept up in the distractions of pleasant earthly delights and material possessions.
(Photos: left window and right window, National Gallery)
Following this theme, we can circle back to our birds: the partridge would be a part of that sinful left hand side, full of deception and false wealth. In contrast, the peacock, the symbol of immortality, is facing to the right, both towards the better side of the painting and towards the bowl of water, representing baptism and faith through Christ. St. Jerome’s success in staying away from the path of temptation is perhaps also implied by the position of the immortal peacock directly below St. Jerome; he has earned his immortal life in Heaven. Similarly, above him, in the upper window, there are tiny birds. Possibly symbolising his soul’s eventual path to Heaven, because the birds are only present in the middle and right-hand windows. The birds are conspicuously absent from the upper left-hand window, above the view of earthly pleasures.
Now, I have to include one final theory about the partridge. Let’s be honest, when you started reading this post about a fifteenth-century painting of St. Jerome, did you ever think I would be able to squeeze out this much partridge-themed content? I am nothing if not determined. One last, insane theory about the partridge was that it was exceptionally fertile – to the extent that it could conceive via nothing more than the wind… I know. What I wouldn’t give sometimes to be in the brains of these historic intellectuals. This almost divine-like conception means that the partridge is sometimes likened to the Virgin Mary. The combination of the partridge’s seemingly-impossible conception and the immortal flesh of the peacock could be read together as a symbol of Jesus Christ: the Virgin birth and Jesus’ later death and resurrection (spoiler alert).
So there you have it. The first day of Christmas. It might not be a partridge in a pear tree, but a villainous, fecund, egg-stealing partridge with a mama-complex isn’t half bad either.
The Twelve Days of Christmas
- ’12 Facts About ‘The 12 Days of Christmas”, Smithsonian Magazine, (accessed 22/12/2021)
- ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas (song)’, Wikipedia, (accessed 22/12/2021)
- ‘The origins of the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas”, Classic FM, (accessed 22/12/2021)
Saint Jerome in his Study
- ‘Antonello da Messina’s Saint Jerome in His Study: An Iconographic Analysis’, P.H. Jolly in The Art Bulletin, (June 1983)
- ‘Saint Jerome in his Study’, National Gallery, (accessed 22/12/2021)
- ’10-minute talk from home: Antonello da Messina’, National Gallery, (accessed 22/12/2021)
- ‘St Jerome in His Study’, Wikipedia, (accessed 22/12/2021)
- ‘An Analysis on Antonello da Messina’s St. Jerome in His Study’, Büşra Balamber, (accessed 22/12/2021)
- ‘Rock Partridge’, Wikipedia, (accessed 22/12/2021)
- ‘St. Jerome’, Britannica, (accessed 22/12/2021)