I could have chosen another Durer print, but this is a much-loved one and one that I came to fully appreciate when I first saw this exceptional early impression from the plate.
"An ordinary impression is wonderfully detailed but lacks the subtle play of light and shadow and the exaggerated depth of space that the room has in this brilliant impression."
These are the basic reasons Clifford Ackley gives for choosing the German artist Albrecht Durer's 1514 virtuoso engraving, "St. Jerome in His Study," as a favorite work in the Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. Mr. Ackley is the department's curator. Ackley explains that in an engraving, the lines that receive the ink are incised into a copper printing plate with a tool called a burin (BYOO-rin), a sharply pointed steel tool. "An 'impression' is a single printing on paper from a plate," he adds. After many impressions, the plate starts to wear, so later impressions are not as good as earlier ones. The MFA's print collection contains 200,000 to 300,000 objects, Ackley says, "ranging from the mid-15th century to the present." So selecting just one could not have been easy. This remarkable print is, however, to be included in an exhibition (Feb. 15-Sept. 7) called "Durer in His Time" - "mostly prints, but also one or two drawings by Durer." Most of the time, the majority of the works in Ackley's department are in storage, but can be seen by appointment. In 1971, he worked on the department's exhibition "Albrecht Durer: Master Printmaker." In it, details of the two impressions of the St. Jerome print that the department owns were compared. "We conceive of our print collection as a study collection ... and we like, particularly for a famous print, to have both better and worse impressions for comparison, so that the student can learn about quality." He describes the "St. Jerome" print as "a milestone in the history of engraving, an evocation of an absolutely extraordinary pattern of light and shadow in a rational, coherent space." That, and "the texture of things" depicted "are elements that are much more vivid in a brilliant early impression. "In a later impression, it all becomes more equal.... The thing that struck me when I first saw this one - or when I have since seen comparable impressions, and there aren't many - was that rather than being all over and diffuse, your attention is urgently directed to the saint himself. The perspective of the space is actually rather exaggerated. It zooms in on the saint. He is also picked out by the halo of light around his head - because that's the only untouched bit of white paper in the entire composition. …