According to legend, at the monastery in Bethlehem that Saint Jerome founded, a lion wandered into the courtyard. Everyone fled inside, except for Saint Jerome, who bravely greeted the lion, as you should greet any guest. Sensing the lion’s distress, Saint Jerome found and removed a thorn from the lion’s paw. (
From that time on the lion was devoted to the abbot and remained at the monastery. The monks determined that if the lion was going to stay he needed a job, and so they told the lion he was to guard their donkey as it went in and out each day. The lion gladly did this, but one day the lion was sleeping and some merchants going by saw the unguarded donkey and took it
The lion awoke and was deeply distressed to find the donkey missing. The monks at the monastery were convinced that the lion had eaten the donkey and punished him. The lion, ashamed of his lapse, searched for his charge, and one day saw the band of merchants with the donkey. The lion ran at them to retrieve the donkey, frightening them into flight. The merchants then repented of their thievery and came to Saint Jerome to confess and cleared the lion of all wrongdoing. Apologies were made to the lion for their assumptions about his character, and the lion remained with Saint Jerome from that time onward.
n every painting of Saint Jerome, his lion companion is painted with him. Often, as we see here, there is also a dog, denoting faithfulness and loyalty. The two animals lying next to each other lend the print a sense of peace. There is a supernatural or spiritual element to the two animals lying together, sharing this space.
Saint Jerome was born in 342 A.D. to wealthy Christian parents who gave their son an excellent education and when he was 12 sent him to Rome to continue his studies. During these student years he lived a worldly lifestyle but was repeatedly drawn to the catacombs where early Christians were
buried and had worshipped.
He felt an early draw to monastic life, and for 5 years lived as a hermit in the wilderness, seeking God through this more extreme exercise of faith.
He wished to avoid the politics of organized church life, preferring monastic life and independence to practice his faith as he saw fit. Saint Jerome established a monastic community in Bethlehem where he eventually settled. This is where the legend of his lion companion was born.
Scattered about the room we find evidence of Jerome’s scholarly, comfortable life. There are books, papers, pens, and scissors, all attesting to his work as a writer and theologian. There are also ample cushions and his slipper under a bench to tell us that while he lives and works in a monastery, and the room isn’t filled with riches, it is still a comfortable, ordered life.
Saint Jerome’s choices to live as a hermit, and in monasteries, along with the letters we have from him, led to a strong connection with memento mori. Because of this Saint Jerome is often pictured with a skull, the ultimate reminder of death. In the print a skull sits on the bench, always within sight of the working saint.