The Louvre has a painting by Sano di Pietro, which literally “tells” the story of the lion of St. Jerome.
You may have come across this lion as a popular meme. It has a very interesting “face”.
So why does its “face” have such an expression? And what happened to this lion?
Next to the lion, we see St. Jerome.
More often, artists depicted him against the backdrop of books in the cabinet. Like on Jan van Eyck’s painting.
Still, Saint Jerome translated the Bible into Latin when he lived in Bethlehem in the 4th century. And thus made it accessible to residents of other countries.
But Sano di Pietro depicted the story of the lion himself and how it ended up at the feet of the saint.
Here is its story.
Once Saint Jerome lived in a monastery. And a lion came to its walls. Everyone fled, except for Saint Jerome. He noticed that the animal was limping.
It turned out that the lion had a splinter! He pulled it out of the animal’s paw. This is exactly what we see in the left part of the painting.
The lion became obedient in gratitude, it followed the saint everywhere.
The monks asked Saint Jerome to give the lion some work to do. So that it would not live in a monastery for free.
Then they assigned it to guard the monastery donkey. When it grazed in the vicinity, the lion looked after it.
But one day the newly minted shepherd fell asleep. A caravan of merchants passed by. They saw a donkey and decided to take it. They did not even notice the lion sleeping in the bushes.
When the lion woke up, it could not find his ward. It wandered back to the monastery.
Seeing it alone, the monks thought that the lion had eaten the donkey. Got angry with it. And made it do donkey’s work ever since. The lion obeyed and drove a cart with water for many days in a row.
But one day the lion saw the same caravan passing by. It chased after him. Repulsed the donkey, and at the same time a couple of camels.
It brought the prey to the monastery. The monks were shocked, of course. It became embarrassing for them that in vain they accused the lion of meanness.
After some time, merchants came for the camels. They realized that the donkey was not ownerless. And it had owners.
They repented and gave the monks several jugs of oil. And they promised to bring such gifts every year.
This is how the lion of St. Jerome began to bring profit to the monastery. And for humility, hard work and the ability to be grateful, it became a frequent guest on canvases and frescoes for several centuries.
But why does the lion look so strange?
Please note that Jan van Eyck’s lion is also completely unrealistic.
However, it is not quite the right appearance on on an engraving by Dürer.
It’s simple: most artists did not have a lion at hand to draw it correctly.
But already at Rubens’ painting we see a completely realistic lion, and this is already the 17th century.
PS. In this story, the behavior of a lion may seem strange to you. After all, it is difficult to imagine that a wild beast would behave like this: guard a donkey, carry a cart with water.
There is a version that in fact a big shaggy dog came to St. Jerome. It is the dog that is distinguished by both devotion and the skills of a shepherd.
The monks rewrote his story time after time, until someone changed the dog for a lion. This implicitly emphasized even more the courage of the saint and his kindness. So this story has come down to us with the hero lion.
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