In the wilderness - temptation and penitence

Jerome left his friend Evagrius in Antioch around 374, and settled as a hermit in the Syrian desert for a period of around two to three years. It is interesting to contrast the image of his life there presented in paintings (and in Jerome's own later writings) with what we know of the reality of his experience, as described by J N D Kelly.*
There is no doubt that his life was hard, and the living frugal. There was a tradition of hermits living an ascetic life in Syria, exemplified by Simon Stylites up on his pillar. Jerome most likely did live in a cave, and had to fend for himself somehow, though it seems it was not that lonely an existence; there were many other hermits-in-residence in the area, and local peasants, and traders passing through. 
     He was not an old man, as depicted in art; at this point in his life he was in his early forties.  Nor was his life solitary and dull. His cave must have been relatively well appointed, for he brought his sizeable library with him and continued his writing; indeed in one of his letters he mentions the team of scribes (probably monks) he had working for him!  He also employed a local Hebrew scholar to teach him that language. He continued to send and receive letters; Evagrius acted as his postman on his regular visits.  
  Jerome described his sojourn in the desert in one of his best-known letters, the one to Eustochium. Was he laying it on a bit? I'll leave you to decide! 

   How often, when I was living in the desert, in the vast solitude which gives to hermits a savage dwelling-place, parched by a burning sun, how often did I fancy myself among the pleasures of Rome! I used to sit alone because I was filled with bitterness. Sackcloth disfigured my unshapely limbs and my skin from long neglect had become as black as an Ethiopian's. Tears and groans were every day my portion; and if drowsiness chanced to overcome my struggles against it, my bare bones, which hardly held together, clashed against the ground. Of my food and drink I say nothing: for, even in sickness, the solitaries have nothing but cold water, and to eat one's food cooked is looked upon as self-indulgence. 

   Titian's picture (left) is fairly typical of images of Jerome in the desert. Bosch's picture is typically over the top; even the trunk of a tree looks like a giant fish ready to devour him.

Nuevos Museos, Escorial


St Jerome in Prayer
Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent

   Fra Angelico (below left) shows Jerome beating himself with a rock in penitence.  Around him are the scorpions mentioned in the extract from the letter to Eustochium quoted below.
   Jacopo del Sellaio's  wonderful picture (below right) illustrates the usual iconography of the penitential Jerome: a skull, a crucifix, and once again the rock. The other characters in the picture are St Mary of Egypt (right) and John the Baptist praying to a young Christ. Both John and Mary spent part of their lives in the wilderness. 

University Art Museum, Princeton

Private Collection

  So what was Jerome being penitential about? His letter to Eustochium continues:

   Now, although in my fear of hell I had consigned myself to this prison, where I had no companions but scorpions and wild beasts, I often found myself amid bevies of girls. My face was pale and my frame chilled with fasting; yet my mind was burning with desire, and the fires of lust kept bubbling up before me when my flesh was as good as dead. Helpless, I cast myself at the feet of Jesus, I watered them with my tears, I wiped them with my hair: and then I subdued my rebellious body with weeks of abstinence. I do not blush to avow my abject misery; rather I lament that I am not now what once I was. I remember how I often cried aloud all night till the break of day and ceased not from beating my breast till tranquillity returned at the chiding of the Lord. I used to dread my very cell as though it knew my thoughts; and, stern and angry with myself, I used to make my way alone into the desert. Wherever I saw hollow valleys, craggy mountains, steep cliffs, there I made my oratory, there the house of correction for my unhappy flesh. There, also - the Lord Himself is my witness - when I had shed copious tears and had strained my eyes towards heaven, I sometimes felt myself among angelic hosts, and for joy and gladness sang: "because of the savour of thy good ointments we will run after thee."

  This is all very confessional, and is illustrated by these pictures by Zurbaran and Vasari. Zurbaran shows the bevies of girls; all very respectable looking, at least in this picture. The Vasari picture brought forth stinging criticism from Anna Jameson (Sacred and Legendary Art). She did not approve of classical cupids in a religious picture: 'an offensive instance of the extent to which, in the sixteenth century, classical ideas had mingled with and depraved Christian art.' But was she right? Jerome relates that love of  classical (i.e. pagan) authors such as Cicero was one of his greatest weaknesses. Appropriate, then, that he should be threatened by a pagan god of love.

Monastery of Santa Maria de Guadalupe

Temptations of St Jerome
Palazzo Pitti, Florence

  Jerome's time in the desert ended rather unsatisfactorily. It appears that he did not get on well with the local hermit community; getting on well with the neighbours was never one of Jerome's strong points. He also became embroiled in all the 'isms and schisms' that beset the church at the time, including choosing between local competing bishops. He eventually returned to stay with Evagrius in Antioch.

   The fresco  by Benozzo Gozzoli below is entitled 'Jerome departs from Antioch'. I'm not entirely sure whether he is departing for the desert or for Rome (I'd guess the latter), but what is interesting is the other character, whom I assume to be the long-suffering Evagrius. Was he pleased to see the back of Jerome? either way, he is equally deserving of a halo. 


Cappella di San Gerolamo, San Francesco, Montefalco

*J N D Kelly, Jerome: his life, writings and controversies, 1975

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