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Saint Jerome Revisited

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 164: Saint Jerome Revisited - Edited Version

IN THE COURSE OF THE PAPER on `The Journey to Il Convento' which I read to you a few weeks ago I spoke of our being drawn to one image or symbol rather than another, often without understanding why, and by way of illustration I described how in the course of my journey to Italy in 1966 I was myself drawn by two images. One of these was the image of St Jerome. Since I described him at some length in the paper, and moreover tried to explain why the image of St Jerome - especially St Jerome in his study, translating the Bible into Latin - should have been of significance to me at that time, I was under the impression that for the time being at least I was finished with that particular image and could forget all about it. But this did not turn out to be the case. Within a few days of reading the paper I found myself thinking about St Jerome quite a lot, and the more I thought about him the more significant the image of the old man bending over his desk in his cell, or study, or cave, seemed to be. It was as though an archetype-image, once activated, possesses a life of its own, and forces itself upon your attention, so to speak, whether you like it or not, and insists on continuing the conversation which, so far as you are concerned, is finished. I therefore decided that the best thing I could do would be to write another paper, devoted exclusively to the image of St Jerome, in the hope that once I had written it, and perhaps read it, I really would be finished with this particular image for the time being.

At first I thought I would write the paper when I was back at Padmaloka, and comfortably settled in my own study again. At Padmaloka I have all my books, and I would be able to look up all sorts of references to St Jerome, as well as to the various images and symbols with which the figure of the saint is traditionally associated. In the end, however, I decided to write the paper here at Il Convento, partly because the image of St Jerome refused to leave me in peace and partly because the thought occurred to me that it might, in fact, actually be an advantage if I was not able to look up any references, since then I would have to rely entirely on my memory and my imagination, which might mean that my imagination would be able to play a more active part in the writing of the paper than otherwise would have been possible. True, I might make mistakes, e.g. mistakes in matters of historical fact, but that would not matter very much. There are one or two mistakes in `The Journey to Il Convento'. After writing the paper I realized that although in my short story I had described the figure of God the Father stepping down from the fresco of the Last Judgement I had not, in fact, seen any such fresco. In all the frescoes of the Last Judgement which I had seen the judge was not God the Father but Christ, in accordance with the words of the Apostle's Creed, `From whence he (i.e. Christ) shall come to judge the quick and the dead.' Similarly, after I had read the paper one of you questioned whether Il Convento di Santa Croce was originally occupied by Franciscan friars or Augustinian canons, since he had seen a reference to Augustinian canons on the back of one of the present-day Il Convento's opera programmes. Whether God the Father or Christ should have been described as stepping down from the fresco, and whether Il Convento was originally occupied by Franciscans or Augustinians, does not of course affect the validity of the points I was trying to make, so that so far as the paper itself is concerned the `mistakes' have no significance. They may, however, have a psychological, or even a spiritual, significance of their own, but that is a matter into which I do not propose to enter on the present occasion. Instead, now that those of you who made the journey to Il Convento in the hope of being ordained have had your hope fulfilled, let us go back over some of the ground that we have already covered and examine it more thoroughly. Let us revisit St Jerome.

As I mentioned last time, St Jerome is usually represented either in the desert or in his cell - that is to say, when he is represented in his own right, so to speak, and not simply as one saint among many in an altarpiece or predella - and it is in his cell, or study, that we shall be visiting him. Before doing so, however, let us pay a short visit to St Jerome in the desert. Paintings of St Jerome in the desert exhibit a much greater variety than do paintings of St Jerome in his study, almost as though the traditional iconography was not so definitely fixed and the artist had greater freedom, at least in certain respects.

Paintings of this sort sometimes represent, according to the title, not St Jerome in the desert but St Jerome performing penance. What they all really represent, however, is simply St Jerome in a landscape, and this is in fact the best and most accurate way of describing them. Since the landscape was, of course, that of the Holy Land, to which St Jerome had retired from Rome, what the artists of the Italian Renaissance should have depicted was, presumably, the kind of landscape that Holman Hunt depicts in The Scapegoat - a dreary expanse of salt marshland with the bottle-green streak of the Dead Sea in the distance backed by a low range of weirdly glowing pink and mauve foothills. In order to paint this landscape the Pre-Raphaelite artist had to make a journey to the Holy Land, but the artists of the Italian Renaissance made no such journey, and never thought of making it. They simply painted whatever landscape lay nearest to hand. The result is that, more often than not, St Jerome is seen not in the desert, or what the King James Bible calls the wilderness, but in the midst of an extremely beautiful, typically Tuscan or Umbrian landscape, with plenty of luxuriant Mediterranean vegetation and an abundance of picturesque rock formations. The landscape is, of course, not cultivated but wild, but it is wild with the wildness not of the desert but of Paradise before the Fall. Sometimes St Jerome is shown actually performing penance.

In such cases he is dressed in a sort of loincloth, often tattered, and either kneels before, or clasps, a rude crucifix. Sometimes, again, he sits on a rock, his head resting on his hand, as though deep in meditation.

More often than not, his faithful lion can be seen somewhere in the picture, usually fast asleep, though in some of the more naive representations of the scene he appears to be sharing in St Jerome's devotions. In quite a number of paintings of what I have termed `St Jerome in a landscape' the figure of the saint was, I noticed, quite tiny in comparison with the rest of the picture. In a few such cases it actually took one a minute or two to find the figure of St Jerome, which in relation to the surrounding countryside then appeared not only tiny but insignificant. What the artists had in fact depicted was not St Jerome in the desert, or St Jerome doing penance, or even St Jerome in a landscape, but simply man in the midst of nature, and in these paintings, I further noticed, nature, in her richness and abundance and beauty, appeared serenely indifferent to the existential anguish of man - an anguish which she was, in fact, incapable of comprehending. Man and nature were strangers to each other. Though he lived in the midst of her, he was not of her. She knew him, if she knew him at all, only as a physical body, and as a physical body he was infinitely smaller than she was, and infinitely less powerful. What these representations of man in the midst of nature seemed to be saying was that viewed from the outside, or simply as a material object among material objects, man is a very insignificant creature. In order to appreciate his greatness, or what an Italian Renaissance philosopher calls `the dignity of man', it is necessary to view him from the inside, from within, as a spiritual being among other spiritual beings, or at least among objects of spiritual significance. In other words, it is necessary to turn from St Jerome in the desert to St Jerome in his study.

St Jerome's study, or cell, is of course often depicted as a cave. The mouth of this cave can sometimes be seen in paintings of St Jerome in the desert, or performing penance, either situated quite near at hand or up on the mountainside, depending on the scale of the painting. This cave constitutes a kind of link between the two different representations of St Jerome or, one might even say, between the two different images of St Jerome, i.e. St Jerome in the desert, or performing penance, and St Jerome in his study translating the Bible. Now I have said that in order to appreciate the greatness of man it is necessary to view him from the inside, from within, as a spiritual being among spiritual beings. But it is only man himself who can view man in this way. Nature cannot do it. She is able to view him, if she views him at all, only from the outside: she sees him only as a physical body. In order to see himself as a spiritual being man has to stop viewing himself only as a physical body, as nature does, and enter into the cave of the heart. To begin with the heart will appear to him as an object, even as a physical object or physical organ.

That is why in paintings of St Jerome in the desert the cave can be seen, but it is seen from the outside, since there it is part of nature, part of the material universe. When man, as represented by the figure of St Jerome in a landscape, enters the cave, the cave is no longer object but subject. Man has turned himself inside out, as it were. St Jerome is no longer in the desert. He is in his study, and we are there in his study with him.

The first thing we notice about the study is that except for a few spiritually significant items such as a red hat, an hourglass, and a human skull, it is completely ...

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