Saint Jerome
Prominent Istrians


St Jerome and the Lion by Vittorio Carpaccio (1502)
Tempera on canvas, 141 x 211 cm
Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, Venice

The Story of St. Jerome and the Lion

In Vita Divi Hieronymi (Migne. P.L., XXII, c. 209ff.) as translated by Helen Waddell in Beasts and Saints (NY: Henry Holt and Co., 1934), you will find the reason St. Jerome is generally pictured with a lion.

Waddell says that the manuscript that records the following story dates no earlier than the 10th or 11th century, and may well result from a confusion between the irasible St. Jerome (Hieronymus) and the more genial St. Gerasimus, who lived a little further up the Jordan River. St. Gerasimus's lion and donkey are less sophisticated than those in this later story. Though St. Jerome is generally remembered as a curmudgeon, he did have those who loved him and saw a gentler side.


One evening at dusk St. Jerome sat with his fellow monk in his monastery in Jerusalem listening to the lesson of the day, when a mighty lion came in limping on three paws, holding the fourth caught up. Imagine the chaos that followed as the monks tripped over one another trying to get away. But Jerome went out to meet him as one greets an incoming guest.

Of course, the lion couldn't speak, since it's not in their nature, but offered the good father his wounded paw. Jerome examined it and called his brethren to bathe it. When it was clean Jerome noticed that the paw had been pierced by thorns. After he applied a salve, the wound quickly healed.

The gentle ministrations had tamed the lion, who now went in and out of the cloister as peaceably as any domestic animal. Of this Jerome said, "Bring your minds to bear upon this, my brethren: what, I ask you, can we find for this lion to do in the way of useful and suitable work, that will not be burdensome to him, and that he can efficiently accomplish? For I believe of a surety that it was not so much for the healing of his paw that God sent him hither, since He could have cured him without us, as to show us that He is anxious to provide marvellous well for our necessity."

The brothers thought that the lion should be tasked with accompanying and protecting the donkey that carried the firewood for the monastery. And so that was the lion's charge. And thus it was for a long time; the lion would guard the donkey as he went to and fro. One day, however, the lion grew tired and fell asleep as the donkey grazed and some Egyptian oil merchants espied the untended donkey and led him away.

The lion eventually awoke and went in search of the donkey. With increasing anxiety he hunted for the donkey all day. At even fall, hopeless, he returned and stood at the monastery gate. Conscious of guilt, he no longer walked in pride as he did usually with the donkey. When Jerome and the monks saw him, they concluded his guilt grew from having allowed his savage nature to overtake his gentleness; that he had killed hte donkey. So, they refused to feed him and sent him away to finish eating his kill.

And yet there was some doubt as to whether he had committed the crime, so the monks went in search of the donkey's carcass and couldn't find it anywhere, nor any sign of violence. The monks reported to Jerome, who said, "I entreat you, brethren, that although you have suffered the loss of the ass, do not nevertheless nag at him or make him wretched. Treat him as before, and offer him his food: and let him take the donkey's place, and make a light harness for him so that he can drag home the branches that have fallen in the wood." And so it happened.

The lion regularly did his appointed task. Yet the lion still sought some understanding of the fate of his former companion. One day he climbed a hill and looked down upon the highway, where he saw men coming with laden camels, and in front of them walked a donkey. He stepped out to meet them. He saw it was his friend and began to roar, charging at the merchants without doing them harm. Frightened, they ran away as fast as they could, leaving the donkey and their packed camels behind them.

The lion led the animals back to the monastery. When the monks saw this odd sight--a donkey leading a parade with the lion in the vanguard and the camels in between--they ran to get Jerome. The saint had the gates opened then said, "Take their loads off these our guests, the camels, I mean, and the donkey, and bathe their feet and give them fodder, and wait to see what God is minded to show His servants."

When he instructions were carried out, the lion began to roam once again through the cloister as he used to do, flattening himself against the feet of each group of brothers and wagging his tail, as though to ask forgiveness for the crime that he had never committed. The brothers, full of remorse for their calumny would say to one another, "Behold our trusty shepherd whom so short a while ago we were upbraiding for a greedy ruffian, and God has deigned to send him to us with such a resounding miracle, to clear his character!"

Meanwhile, Jerome, aware of things to come, said, "Be prepared, my brethren, in all things that are requisite for refreshment: so that those who are about to be our guests may be received, as is fitting, without embarassment."

So the brothers prepared for the arrival of other guests, just as the merchants arrived a the gate. They were welcomed; however, they entered blushing, and protrated themselves at Jerome's feet, entreating forgiveness for their fault. 'Gently raising them up, he admonished them to enjoy their own with thanksgiving, but not to encroach on others' goods: and in short to live cautiously, as ever in the presence of God.' Then he offered them refreshment before they left with their camels.

The merchants offered the monks half the oil carried by their camels to fill the lamps in the church and for the needs of the monks, "because we know and are sure that it was rather to be of service to you than for our own profit that we went down into Egypt to bargain there."

Jerome responded, "This that you ask is indeed not right, for it would seem a great hardship that we who ought to have compassionon others and relieve their necessities by our own giving, should bear so heavy on you, taking your property away from you when we are not in need of it."

To which they answered, "Neither this food, nor any of our own property do we touch, unless you first command that what we ask shall be done. And so, as we have siad, do you now accept half of the oil that the camels have brought: and we pledge ourselves and our heirs to give to you and those that come after you the measure of oil which is called a hin in each succeeding year."

And so Jerome accepted. The merchants for their part accepted the refreshments and a blessing, and returned rejoicing to the own people.

Source:

  • Text - http://users.erols.com/saintpat/ss/0930jero.htm
  • Images - The UNC Jerome-SASLC Team - Details from Story of St. Jerome and the Lion, from the Belles Heures de Jean, Duc de Berry fol. 187r. 
    Limbourg brothers, French, c. 1410-16. Cloisters Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York - http://www.unc.edu/depts/jersaslc/jerome.htm.
     
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Created: Sunday, May 26, 2002; Last Updated: Sunday, September 15, 2013
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