One of my favorite saints is Jerome, AKA Saint Hieronymous. Why? Because he befriended a lion in the wilderness–or at least so the legend goes. In the painting above, the lion has ventured into the saint’s dusty study with a thorn in his paw. Jerome sets his book aside and carefully removes the thorn. In other depictions, the saint comes across the lion, writhing in pain, out in the wilds. Either way, the legend is that from the moment Jerome extracted the thorn, the lion never left his side.
Jerome was born around the year 347 A.D. He lived mostly in what is now Croatia. A scholarly fellow, he became one of the earliest Doctors of the Church, before titles like “Cardinal” existed. One of his main accomplishments was translating the Bible into Latin, from its original Aramaic and Greek.
In paintings, the lion often lurks under a table or in a dark corner.
I took the two photos just above in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. I love the legend, and whenever I’m in an art museum I’m on the lookout for images of Jerome and his lion. They have been painted countless times.
Whenever I spot Jerome and his lion, I move in for a closeup.
To me, Jerome’s friendship with his lion is part of his concern for the whole creation.
The faithful lion is always present. In the painting of Jerome in the large study above, he’s patrolling the perimeter. No matter what, the lion always had Jerome’s back.
If the lion’s face is shown, he always has a friendly, grateful, loyal face–much like a shy family dog. He tends to look a little wary–who is about to disturb his friend Jerome?
Are these paintings just sentimental portrayals of a serious saint who should be remembered for much more than a story that may not have happened at all? The subject is the medieval and Renaissance equivalent of sharing cute animal videos online.
On a busy day, a couple of minutes spent watching photogenic animals feels to me like a guilty pleasure. What am I accomplishing by watching a gorilla rock a kitten to sleep or a sheepdog rescue a teacup pig from drowning? Well, I’m not getting a thing done, but I’m pausing in a busy day to learn compassion from animals. Like those videos, the images of St. Jerome and his lion give us an appreciation of our bond with the animals who share our world. The animals mostly treat each other and our world better than we humans do. If I were St. Jerome, I wouldn’t mind being remembered as an animal lover as well as a high-powered scholar.
Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!