Saturday, September 30, 2017

St Jerome’s Lion

There are very few episodes of what we might call a legendary character attached to the figure of St Jerome, at least in part because we have so much authentic information about his life from his own incredibly prolific pen. The Golden Legend gives only one such story in its account of him, which explains why a lion became his most distinctive attribute in art.

“One evening, when Jerome was sitting with the brethren to listen a sacred reading, a lion came limping into the monastery; at the sight of it, as the other brothers fled, Jerome went to meet it as a guest. When the lion showed him its wounded foot, he commanded that its feet be washed and its wound carefully examined. This revealed that the sole of its paw was wounded by thorns; therefore, they took good care of it, and the lion recovered, and laying aside all its ferocity, lived among them like a domestic animal. Then Jerome, seeing that the Lord had sent the lion not so much for the healing of its foot as for their use, at the suggestion of the brothers imposed this duty upon it, that it should bring to pasture and watch over a donkey which they had, which carried wood from the forest.”
St Jerome Bringing the Lion into the Monastery, by Lazzaro Bastiani, second half of the 15th century. (Public domain image from Wikipedia.)
The story goes on to say that one day, the lion fell asleep while on duty, and the donkey was stolen by merchants passing by in a camel train. St Jerome therefore imposed the donkey’s job on the lion, which it faithfully did, until one day, it spied at a distance the same merchants, with their camels and the stolen donkey. By roaring and lashing its tail, the lion drove the whole camel train, including the thieves, back to the monastery; St Jerome received them as guests, while exhorting them not steal any more. As a token of their repentance, the merchants gave a certain quantity of oil as a gift to the monastery, and promised they would henceforth bring it every year in perpetuity, laying the same obligation on their heirs.

Right after the episode of the lion, the Golden Legend says that the behest of the Emperor Theodosius and Pope St Damasus I, he arranged the traditional division of the Psalter over the days of the week, prescribing the singing of the doxology at the end of the psalms, and that he also created the Roman Mass lectionary, “which he sent from Bethlehem to the Supreme Pontiff, and it was heartily approved by him and his cardinals, and deemed forever authentic.”

The Funeral of St Jerome, also by Bastiani. The lion attends in the lower left hand corner.

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