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Saint Jerome Revisited

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by Sangharakshita

... nature. The third possibility is represented by St Jerome and the lion, as well as by Hercules who, having strangled the Nemean lion, wears its skin on his shoulders. In all four cases, however, the lion is subdued. Man's lower nature is not allowed to disturb him as he pursues his distinctively human activities.

Once images of lions, and men in association with lions, had started forcing themselves on my attention in this way, there seemed to be no stopping them. Since we still have to consider the significance of the various items contained in St Jerome's study there is time for no more than a brief reference to a few of these images, with some of which you will already be familiar, though you may not have attached to them the kind of significance with which we are at present concerned. These more insistent images come from even farther afield than the images of men and lions which we have so far encountered. They come not from the Judaeo-Christian and Classical traditions but, originally, from the treasury of Indian Buddhist culture. The first such image is that of the Teaching Buddha and the two, sometimes four, lions which support his throne in the same way that elephants support the throne of the Earth-Touching Buddha and peacocks the throne of the Meditating Buddha, and so on. There are, of course, biographical and doctrinal reasons why the throne of the Teaching Buddha should be supported by lions rather than by animals of any other kind, but at present all I want to do is to draw attention to the association, in this case, between Enlightened Man and lion and to suggest that, on its own much higher level, it has the same general significance as the association between St Jerome and the lion or, for the matter of that, between the heroes of the Old Testament and of Classical legend and their respective lions. From the Buddha and his lions to Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, and his, is no more than a short step. Lions support the throne of Manjusri in exactly the same manner that they support the throne of the Teaching Buddha (those of you who are acquainted with the symbolism of the Five Buddhas will know the reason for this), but the best known and most typical example of the association between Manjusri and the lion is that which represents the great Bodhisattva as using a single lion as his vehicle or mount. Such representatations seem to have been particularly abundant in Buddhist China, where Manjusri was known as Monju-shi-li and where the Manchu or Ching dynasty - the last of the dynasties of China - supposedly took its name from him. In China, however, either there were no lions or Chinese artists did not care to study them from life, for in Chinese Buddhist art Manjusri is represented as riding on an animal that looks much more like an enormous dog than like a lion. Indeed, under Manchu dynasty the Chinese actually succeeded in breeding a dog that looked like a lion. This was the famous `lion-dog', in the West better known as the Pekingese, after its place of origin. These dogs were semi-sacred, and could be kept only by the emperor, who was regarded as an emanation of Manjusri in much the same way that the Dalai Lama was regarded as an emanation of Avalokitesvara. When the lion-dogs died their skins were made into chair-coverings for the imperial apartments, and I remember my father telling me that his step-father, who was present at the sack of the Summer Palace, had brought several of these chair-coverings back to England with him as souvenirs. Two or three decades earlier, however, the first pair of lion-dogs to be seen in the West had been sent - I believe by the celebrated Dowager Empress - as a present to Queen Victoria.

I had intended that these images of lions, and images of men in association with lions, should be the last that I would allow into this paper, but even as I was writing about them yet another image, from a completely different culture, positively forced itself upon my attention and insisted on finding a place here.

Since it is high time we returned to St Jerome's study, and started considering the significance of the red hat hanging on the wall there, I shall do no more than mention this final instance of close association between man and lion. The image in question does not come from so far afield as the images from Indian and Chinese Buddhist culture, but it comes from a culture perhaps more alien in spirit. It is an image belonging to the myths and legends of ancient Assyria, as illustrated by the bas-reliefs preserved in the British Museum and elsewhere. The image is that of a powerfully built man, either a hero or a king, who stands with both arms extended to their full length, so that his body forms a Latin cross. In either hand he grasps a lion by the hind legs, so that it hangs down head foremost with its whiskers almost touching the ground. Once again man and lion are in close association, and once again man has subdued the lion. The red hat hanging on the wall of St Jerome's study is a cardinal's hat, that is to say, it is a round red hat with a broad brim over which red tassels hang down on either side. In more than one painting of St Jerome in his study it contributes a splash of vivid colour to what would otherwise be a sombre scene, sometimes piercing through the gloom with a rich ruby gleam. As I mentioned in the previous paper, due to his association with the reigning pope of his day, St Jerome was traditionally regarded as a cardinal, and when depicted in alterpieces and predellas along with other saints he usually wears not only his red cardinal's hat but also his red cardinal's robes, so that what with these and his long white or grey beard and the large, richly bound volume he holds clasped beneath one arm, he is a colourful and picturesque figure. In his study, however, St Jerome puts aside his cardinal's hat and robes. Indeed, the robes are nowhere to be seen. Only the red hat hangs there on the wall, where the warmth of its colour harmonizes with the warm orange-tawny hues of the lion asleep at St Jerome's feet, as though to suggest that there is some kind of connection between the two. A connection, indeed, there is. In the same way that the lion represents nature, or the natural order, so the red cardinal's hat represents human society, or the social order. This social order has not actually followed St Jerome into his cell, or study, or cave, as the lion has followed him, because unlike the lion it is not really part of St Jerome and it is possible for St Jerome to separate himself from it in a way that he cannot separate himself from the lion. But though St Jerome has separated himself from the social order - though he has left Rome and come to Bethlehem, to the desert - there is a sense in which the social order, while not exactly a part of him, is nevertheless present in him. It is present in him as his capacity to function within the social order - a capacity which he continues to possess even when he does not actually exercise it. It is his social self, or even his group self. The red hat represents not so much human society, or the social order, as it is in itself, as this social self. For the time being it hangs on the wall. St Jerome hung it there when he entered his study, or cell, or cave, and he can put it on again whenever he chooses to leave his study and resume his rightful place in the world.

Originally, a cardinal was a priest in charge of one of the Roman churches who, as well as running his own church, assisted the Bishop of Rome, i.e. the pope, in the administration of his diocese. (At that time, of course, the titles of cardinal and pope were unknown.) Later, when the pope had become the ruler of the whole Western Church, the cardinals assisted him in the administration of his vast ecclesiastical empire and, though they were no longer responsible for the running of the Roman churches, on his appointment every cardinal was attached to one of these churches in a titular capacity - a practice which I believe still exists. Thus the cardinals were `princes of the Church'. With few exceptions they lived in sumptuous style, in magnificent palaces, possessed great personal wealth, and wielded enormous political influence. Most important of all, it was they who elected the pope, and they usually elected him from among themselves.

By the time the artists of the Italian Renaissance came to represent St Jerome in his study a cardinal was a very important person indeed, so that to be presented with a red hat by the pope was the eventual aim of every ambitious cleric in Christendom. All that was well understood by the artists of the Italian Renaissance, and sometimes the red hat on the wall of St Jerome's study seems to glow with a sinister and lurid splendour. In theory the deep crimson of a cardinal's hat and robes symbolized his readiness to shed his blood in the service of the Church, but only too often it symbolized the blood he had had to shed in order to become a cardinal - not to speak of all the blood shed by the Church in the furtherance of its interests and the establishment of its power. Seen in the light of these developments, the red hat hanging on the wall of St Jerome's study represents not just human society, or the social order, not just St Jerome's social self. It represents the worldly ambition whose realization the social order makes possible. When he withdraws into the cave, when he devotes himself to the work of translating the Bible, or to bringing what was hidden in the depths up to the surface, or from darkness into light, St Jerome not only separates himself from the social order and keeps his social self in abeyance. He also renounces all worldly ambition, especially ambition which wears the cloak of religion and professes to sacrifice self for others when in reality it is sacrificing others to self. He renounces all thought of doing evil that good may come of it (the ...

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