Life with the lion

Few pictures of Jerome fail to include his most familiar attribute, the lion. Unfortunately the story of the lion is not just apocryphal; Jerome is actually the wrong saint.  The legend was originally connected to Saint Gerasimus, easily confused, I suppose, with Jerome (Hieronymus). Gerasimus also lived the life of an ascetic, but came a little later than Jerome. A shame to spoil the story, but that's the way it is. Maybe it was not just a case of mistaken identity though: the lion, with its fierceness, determination and solitary life in the wilderness is an appropriate image for Jerome. Indeed, Anna Jameson in Sacred and Legendary Art suggests that the attribute of the lion had been applied to Jerome long before the Gerasimus story came along, though she offers no specific evidence for this.  
   Here is the full story of the lion, from the Golden Legend.

   One evening, as Jerome sat with his brothers to hear the holy lesson, a lion came limping into the monastery. When the brothers saw him they fled, but Jerome came up to him as if he were a guest. The lion then showed him that his foot was hurt.
    Jerome then called his brothers, and told them to wash the lion’s foot and and search for the wound. And that done, they found that the foot of the lion was pricked with a thorn. And so the holy man cured him, and healed him, and the lion became a tame beast and lived with them from that time forwards.
   Then Saint Jerome saw that God had sent the lion to them, not just for his foot to be healed, but also for their own profit. With the agreement of the brothers the lion was employed to lead an ass which brought home wood from the field, and keep him going and coming. The lion followed his orders, led the ass as if he were a herdsman, and kept him going and coming. He was to him a faithful keeper and defender, and always he and the ass came back to feed at the appointed hour.

    One day it happed that the ass was in his field, and the lion was asleep. Merchants passed by with camels and saw the ass alone, and they stole him and led him away. When the lion awoke and could not find his fellow, he ran hither and thither looking for him. When he saw that he could not be found he was broken-hearted and dared not come in, but stayed at the gate of the church of the monastery; he was ashamed that he came without the ass.

  When the brothers saw that he was late, and had come without the ass, they supposed that he had become hungry and had eaten it. They would not feed him, and said  ‘Go and eat the other part of the ass, and satisfy your gluttony’. Because they doubted, and they wished to find out if he had killed and eaten the ass, they went to the fields of the town to look. They found nothing, and returned and told Jerome what had happened. He commanded them to make the lion do the office of the ass. They cut down bushes and boughs and laid them upon him, and he suffered it without complaint.

  On a day when he had done his work he went out to the fields and began to run hither and thither, anxious to know what had happened to his fellow. He saw from afar merchants that came with laden camels, and the ass walking before them. When the lion saw the ass, with a great roaring he ran on them so fiercely that all the merchants fled. He frightened the camels so much by beating the earth with his tail that he forced them to go straight to the monastery with all their burdens.
  When the brothers saw this they told Jerome, and he said: ‘Brothers, wash the feet of our guests and give them meat’. Then the lion ran joyfully through the monastery, and kneeled down to every brother and fawned them with his tail, as if he was demanding pardon for what he had done. Saint Jerome, who knew well what was to happen, said to the brothers ‘go and make ready all things necessary for guests that be coming to us.’ And as he spoke, a messenger arrived, telling him that there were guests at the gate that wished to speak with the abbot. And as soon as they came in they kneeled to the abbot, and asked him to pardon them. And he made them stand up, and told them to take their own goods, and not to take away other men's. And then they asked the holy saint to take half of their oil, but he refused it. Eventually he agreed to take a measure of oil, and they promised that they should bring a measure of oil to that church every year, and their heirs after them.

   The friendly lion appears in both study and  desert scenes.  Durer's lion is particularly impressive.

Antonio da Fabriano
Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Albrecht Durer
National Gallery, London

  Some artists illustrated the Golden Legend narrative. In this picture we can see camels in the background heading for the unguarded ass while the lion keeps an eye on what Jerome is up to.

Lucas Gassel
Private collection

   In the wonderful painting by Carpaccio in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni in Venice the lion has just arrived, much to the consternation of the monks.

   A number of paintings show the thorn being removed. In this intriguing version by an unknown Italian artist the monks are alarmed, but the building contractors are made of sterner stuff. 

Private collection

   Sano di Pietro in his Jerome cycle covers all of the main events of Jerome's life, and this picture features all the best bits from the Golden Legend story: the removal of the thorn, the merchants helping themselves to the ass,  and the rather angry lion taking it out on the camels. The cycle was painted for the Jesuit convent of San Girolamo (Jerome) in Siena: it is now in the Louvre.

   The thorn in the lion's foot is a reminder of the Androcles myth, and perhaps this is the origin of the legend. That story is reminiscent of the suffering of Christian martyrs, and George Bernard Shaw in his version does turn Androcles into a Christian.

Book illustration of 1916 by John D Batten Showing Androcles and the lion.

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