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Saint Jerome Revisited

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by Sangharakshita

... bare. (I am speaking of what may be termed the `typical' representation of St Jerome's study in Italian Renaissance art.) In particular, it does not contain - apart from one important exception, which I shall mention in a minute - any natural object. There are no flowers in vases, for instance, and no food - not so much as a crust of bread or a cruse of wine. Moreover there are no windows and therefore no view, so that St Jerome cannot look out at the surrounding desert when he gets tired of translating the Bible and the Greek and Hebrew characters start dancing in front of his eyes. In the cave of the heart man cannot see nature, and nature cannot see man. There must, of course, be a door, but it cannot be open, for no sunlight streams through it into the cave, which is filled with a mysterious glow of its own. (Sometimes St Jerome is depicted working by the light of a candle.) What the typical representation of St Jerome in his study really gives us is a cross-section of an inner world. In this inner world man is not insignificant, as he is when viewed from the outside, as part of the material universe, and this is why in paintings of St Jerome in his study the figure of St Jerome himself looms extremely large. Indeed, it sometimes practically fills the entire painting. If in the case of St Jerome in a landscape, or in the midst of nature, there is hardly room for St Jerome, in the case of St Jerome in his study there is hardly room for nature. As I have already said, with one exception St Jerome's study, or cell, does not contain any natural object, that is to say, any living natural object, for presumably his desk is made of wood that was once part of a tree and the pages of the Bible he is translating of parchment that was once part of a sheep. One might even say that St Jerome's study contains nothing but St Jerome, for every one of the spiritually significant items, as I have called them, is in a sense an extension of the saint's own personality - as is even the one natural object that the study contains.

This natural object is the lion. He is always with St Jerome in his cell, or study, just as he is nearly always with him in the desert, or when he is doing penance. Like the cave, he is a kind of link between the desert and the study, the objective world and the subjective world, matter and spirit. How St Jerome came to be associated with the lion, or the lion with St Jerome, I do not recollect ever reading. Tucked away in an obscure corner of the legendary life of the saint there is, in all probability, an episode of the type made familiar to us by the story of Androcles and the Lion - an episode, that is to say, in which St Jerome removes a thorn from the paw of a lion who, out of gratitude, thereafter stays with him as his attendant.

Even if there is such an episode, however, the artists of the Italian Renaissance do not seem to have represented it in any way. It is as though they felt that the lion's presence in the painting - whether of St Jerome in the desert or St Jerome in his study - needed no explanation. He was simply there, and he was there not for biographical reasons but for psychological and spiritual reasons that were perfectly obvious to anyone in whom the imaginal faculty was awake and who could understand the language of images and symbols. Translated from the language of images and symbols into the language of concepts the significance of the lion is not difficult to appreciate. The lion is the king of beasts. Apart from man, who in reality belongs to a different order of existence, the lion is the highest of all natural objects. Just as the vegetable kingdom is higher than the mineral kingdom, so the animal kingdom is higher than the vegetable kingdom, and in the animal kingdom the lion is supreme. In the lion, therefore, all the energies and powers of the natural world are gathered together and given their highest and most perfect embodiment. Thus the lion is nature par excellence, which in fact means that the lion represents not so much nature herself as nature as she exists in man. The lion accompanies St Jerome because he is part of St Jerome. He is St Jerome's lower nature, so to speak. He is the Lower Evolution as taken up into, and incorporated with, the Higher Evolution. Thus the lion not only stays with St Jerome in the desert, where he is a natural object among natural objects, but also follows him into the cave - the cave of the heart - where he is a natural object among spiritual objects, or rather a natural object among objects of spiritual significance, and stays with him there.

In paintings of St Jerome in the desert the figure of the lion is often as tiny and as insignificant as that of St Jerome. Indeed, sometimes he disappears altogether, as though merged into the landscape, for since he represents nature, albeit nature par excellence, it is hardly necessary for him to be present in his individual capacity. In paintings of St Jerome in his study, however, the figure of the lion looms almost as large as that of the saint. True, as depicted in medieval Italian art he often looks more like a large yellow dog than a lion, but as depicted by the artists of the Italian Renaissance, who often studied him from life (Italian princes of the period like to keep lions in their menageries), he is in both form and feature the king of beasts indeed. Usually he is curled up quite close to St Jerome. When the figure of St Jerome threatens to fill the entire painting such proximity is a practical necessity, and the artist has to have recourse to some ingenious foreshortening to get them both in. Sometimes, indeed, the lion lies stretched out beneath St Jerome's desk, so that the saint is able to use him as a foot-warmer. Sometimes his eyes are wide open, and regard the spectator with a steady, level stare, but more often they are closed in sleep. But howsoever he is depicted, whether as more like a large yellow dog or more like a real lion, whether curled up or stretched out, awake or asleep, St Jerome's lion represents not only nature as a part of man but also nature as a part of man that has been tamed. Because he has been tamed the lion does not disturb St Jerome in his work of translation, and how important it is that St Jerome should not be disturbed we shall be able to appreciate only when we have a better understanding of the true nature of that work.

Meanwhile, we have by no means finished with the lion, or exhausted the significance of his association with St Jerome. When I first found myself thinking about St Jerome, shortly after reading my last paper, I did not pay much attention to the lion. But after I had decided that we should revisit St Jerome I found myself thinking about the lion almost as much as about St Jerome himself. Nor was that all. As I thought about St Jerome and the lion I found that I was thinking of other instances of close association between man and lion and that their images too were forcing themselves upon my attention. These instances came from both the Judaeo-Christian and the Classical traditions and involved images belonging to ancient myth and legend that were no less familiar to me, from art and literature, than the image of St Jerome himself, and imbued with hardly less significance. To begin with there were images of Samson slaying the lion and Daniel in the lion's den. Both these images came from the Bible, from the Old Testament, and I encountered them for the first time when, at the age of four or five or even earlier, I started spelling my way through Grandmother's Bible. This was a massive, leather-bound volume with huge gilt clasps that my father had inherited from his maternal grandmother. In the front it contained the names and dates of birth (and in some cases dates of death) of great-grandmother's and great-grandfather's children and grandchildren, to which, I believe, my father had added the names and dates of birth of myself and my sister. It also contained numerous full-page illustrations, all printed in the most vivid colours imaginable.

Apart from Moses breaking the Tablets of the Law, the ones I remember most clearly are those of Samson slaying the lion and Daniel in the lion's den. In the first, a bright pink Samson wrestled with a bright yellow lion against an emerald green background. In the second, a Daniel in a deep blue robe knelt in prayer while a pale yellow light streamed down on to his head from the open heavens. Around him were strewn human skulls and bones (I particularly remember a set of ribs), while an enormous grey lion regarded him from the shadows. From the Classical tradition came the image of Hercules and the Nemean lion. The strangling of this enormous lion was the first of the famous Twelve Labours of Hercules, and after killing it the hero wore its skin as a sort of cloak, with the head forming a rough hood, and the paws dangling down in front like empty sleeves. In the case of all three images - Samson slaying the lion, Daniel in the lion's den, and Hercules and the Nemean lion - there is an association between a man and a lion, and in each case the man tames or subdues the lion. Samson tears the lion's jaws apart, Daniel renders the lion powerless by virtue of his faith in God, and Hercules strangles the lion to death. Thus in each case there is a close parallel with the association between St Jerome and the lion. At the same time, there are differences. In Samson's case, he actually destroys the lion. Daniel manages to keep the lion at bay.

Hercules kills the lion and wears its skin. The three heroes may therefore be regarded as representing the three different attitudes which it is possible for man to adopt towards his own lower nature. He can destroy it, i.e. repress it completely, he can keep it at a safe distance, i.e. suppress it by religious and other means, or he can tame it and turn it into a companion, i.e. integrate it into his higher nature. ...

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