For my birthday, C. gave me the most magnificent gift: a small framed reproduction of my favorite painting, Caravaggio’s Saint Jerome in His Study from 1605.

Saint Jerome was often depicted in the desert wilderness, forsaking worldly distraction in exchange for salvation. But in Caravaggio’s hands, he is hushed and desiccated as he completes the first translation of the Bible into Latin. He stares deep into its pages, hunting for revelation, ignoring the skull on his desk, a memento mori that mocks the vanity of our knowledge in the face of the unknowable. The darkness that envelopes him is heavier, more textured than the red cloth he wears, yet he’s determined to write one last word before the night consumes him.

John Berger has said Caravaggio’s darkness “smells of candles, over-ripe melons, damp washing to be hung out the next day.” To me, it feels like the purple-black thoughts that burble within the midnight brain. And in this darkness, Jerome no longer belongs to history or dogma but the silence he sought while crisscrossing the desert in the prime of his life.

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