Some saints are instantly recognizable when you spot them, others remain in hazy anonymity. You know St. Therese when you see her, pristine Carmelite habit surrounding a bouquet of roses, austere and a little saccharine, she stands out in crowd. Peter with his keys, Paul with his sword, Catherine and her wheel, Dominic with his hound, for centuries artists have used particular recognizable symbols as id badges for the saints, so they don’t get lost in the crowd. One of the most unique, and perhaps strangest, is St. Jerome.
St. Jerome, the 4th century priest and Doctor of the Church, is frequently depicted in the most eccentric of situations. An emaciated old man (far beyond the wildness of St. John the Baptist) half dressed as a Cardinal, with long flowing robes and a huge red hat, he is often surrounded by stacks of books in the midst of study. His one companion, however, is not one you normally find in a library. His study floor is guarded by a huge tawny lion, docile and patient, like the saints own peculiar pet. Why does St. Jerome have such an elaborate artistic hagiography? What can these strange symbols teach us about the saint himself and his contribution to the Church?
Let’s start with the lion in the room. The story of the Lion which graces many depictions of St. Jerome comes to us not from a contemporary biography, but from The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, a popular work of the late middle ages which told fantastic stories about the lives of the saints. In the Legend’s account of the life of St. Jerome, we are told of an incident when a lion walked into St. Jerome’s monastery while the brothers were hearing a sermon. The brothers ran away in terror, but the saint calmly greeted their leonine guest and welcomed him to their home. He noticed however that the lion was limping, and seeing a large thorn in his paw, the saint cooly and swiftly removed the barb and healed him, and “he abode ever after as a tame beast with them.”
Those who have read some Greek mythology will recognize the story, it is a retelling of Aesop’s fable of Androcles and the Lion, with St. Jerome as the hero, it’s probably not what actually happened. That being said, artists for centuries have been fascinated with the doctor and his lion, and the two are much more associated with each other than many of the other wild stories from the Golden Legend. Part of the reason for that could be the similarities in temperament between St. Jerome and his ferocious friend. St. Jerome was not simply a quiet scholar; he roared in defense of the faith. And he did so not very meekly. St. Jerome himself acknowledge that, like many of us, he struggled with anger and that he tried to combat his natural ferocity with much prayer and fasting.
The Penitent Cardinal
With the lion out of the way, the next most eccentric thing about St. Jerome is his clothing. The saint is usually depicted as a Cardinal, wearing red robes and sporting a large red cardinal hat with all its tassels. And yet, oftentimes his robe is slipping off revealing a body emaciated from fasting, or his hat and Cardinal gear is set aside all together while the penitential saint kneels in sackcloth and ashes. St. Jerome spent a large portion of his life as a hermit in the Judean wilderness, studying scripture and living an ascetical life. Yet for three years he was summoned to Rome by Pope Damasus I to serve as his personal secretary and theological advisor. Pope Damasus would later commission him to work on a new translation of the Bible, which would come to be known as the Vulgate and stand for centuries as the definitive Latin translation. And though there weren’t really Cardinals by that time, he fulfilled a role that later Cardinals would fill. Hence the robes. The dichotomy though between the sumptuous splendor of a Cardinal’s scarlet, and the body of a penitential monk also speaks beautifully about who St. Jerome is. He did not care for worldly splendor, but sought in humility to do penance for his sins and pursue the Lord alone.
Finally, the books. St. Jerome is frequently depicted surrounded by books. He was such a scholar that books were his temptations as well as his glory. In a letter he described how he had a vision of his judge, who asked him who he was. His response was, “I am a Christian.” The judge responded, “‘Thou liest, thou art a follower of Cicero and not of Christ. For “where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also.”’ Instantly I became dumb, and amid the strokes of the lash—for He had ordered me to be scourged—I was tortured more severely still by the fire of conscience…” After his conversion, his scholarly work was directed towards Christ. He studied Greek and Hebrew and all the historical source work he could to understand scripture better. His famous phrase, “Ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ” helps you to understand why he was so devoted a scholar. It wasn’t for arcane knowledge that he threw himself into scholarship, but for a deep intimacy with his Lord.