I quite like going to visit my friends curiosity shop. It is filled with all things macabre and fascinating. While I was there this weekend, I heard a gentleman talking about this picture, so I decided to investigate and share it. The man was quite taken with the skull and the lion in this piece… not because it was a piece of religious iconography of the patron saint of students, bible studies and librarians.
In the past I have gone in to detail about the subject of the painting, but really, St. Jerome is like many other saints. When we was younger he was easily tempted, he then turned to Christianity, lived in the desert for a number of years as a hermit, and then went around imparting his knowledge and doing good deeds.
This picture was created in 1514, by Dürer. Dürer established a good reputation and influence across Europe while he was still in his twenties due to his high quality woodcut prints. He was in communications with major artists such as Bellini and Da Vinci, and from the year 1512 he was patronised by the emperor Maximilian I. His work has made him commemorated by both the Lutheran and Episcopal churches. Dürer is felt to be one of the most important figures in the Northern Renaissance a he introduced classical motifs through his knowledge of Italian artists and German humanists.
This picture shows St. Jerome seated at his desk, engrossed in his studies. There is an imaginary line which links St. Jerome’s head to the skull that you can see on the widow sill. This is contrasting death and the resurrection. The skull clearly represents death, yet St. Jerome’s studies of Christianity is keeping the Holy Spirit alive, hence representing the resurrection. The lion in the foreground is part of a traditional iconography for St. Jerome. This stems from a story (obviously) which I shall tell you…
One day, St. Jerome was sat in the monastery with the other monks, when a lion came through the doors. All the monks ran away, except for St. Jerome, who just sat watching the lion. Slowly the lion made his way towards St. Jerome and it lifted it’s paw. St. Jerome found a thorn stuck deep in to the lion’s paw, which he removed. He then boiled water with some healing herbs and bathed the lion’s foot, finally binding it in linen so that the wound would not get dirty. Expecting the lion to leave, St. Jerome was surprised when the lion stretched out in front of him and fell asleep. St. Jerome then lay next to the lion and slept with him. When they both awoke, St. Jerome said to the lion “If you intend to stay with me, then I must give you a job, as everyone who stays here has to work”. The lion bowed his head in agreement, and was assigned the job of walking with the monasteries donkey to guard it as it fetched wood from an old man in the forest.
This set up worked well. The lion would accompany the donkey, and then sleep as the old man loaded the donkey with wood, then they would both walk back. One day, as the lion waited for the donkey, he slept as usual but waking and seeing that there was no one around and the sun was low, he didn’t know what happened. Searching for the donkey’s footprints, thinking that it may have walked home alone, it found 3 sets of footprints, which meant only one thing… the donkey must have been stolen. The lion returned with it’s tail between it’s legs. St. Jerome asked what happened, and refused to believe the other monks claims that the lion must have eaten the donkey, so he assigned the wood gathering job to the lion instead.
A few more months past and the lion had been gathering the wood as requested, when a caravan came by, and the lion recognised the donkey in tow. The lion jumped in front of the travellers, and growled and pushed them all the way back to St. Jerome, who also recognised the donkey. The thieves begged St. Jerome for their lives in return for the donkey, and St. Jerome accepted. The monks celebrated, seeing that the lion was indeed trustworthy. The lion and the donkey continued their routine and the lion became a life long companion for St. Jerome.
The dog in the picture is a regular motif which Dürer uses to indicate loyalty, which links back to the lions role in St. Jerome’s life and this picture.
The picture is one of Dürer’s well known engravings and is a testament to his high quality work.
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