St. Jerome in the Wilderness

oil depicting biblical scene of St. Jerome and lion in background

Paolo Veronese
St. Jerome in the Wilderness, 1566–67
Oil on canvas
91 x 57 1/4 in. (231 x 145.5 cm)
Photo Ufficio Beni Culturali del Patriarcato di Venezia

 

Veronese portrayed St. Jerome — to whom Degli Arbori's chapel was dedicated — on the altarpiece of the chapel in Murano. Jerome, who lived between the fourth and fifth centuries in Dalmatia, is known primarily for having translated the Bible into Latin. He spent substantial time in the desert, probably in Syria, where he led an ascetic life. In a letter to his friend Eustochium, Jerome describes his trials as follows:

living in the wilderness, in the vast solitude that provides a horrid, sun-scorched abode to monks . . . Tears all day, groans all day — and if, resist it as I might, sleep overwhelmed me, my fleshless bones, hardly holding together, scraped against the bare ground. I say nothing about food or drink . . . All the company I had was scorpions and wild beasts . . . So it was that I wept continually and starved the rebellious flesh for weeks at a time. Often I joined day to night and did not stop beating my breast until the Lord restored my peace of mind . . . Angry and stern with myself I plunged alone, deeper and deeper, into the wasteland; and, as the Lord is my witness, from time to time and after many tears I seemed to be in the midst of throngs of angels.

While living as a monk in Bethlehem, Jerome was visited by what was to become one of his most frequent iconographic symbols. As he and the other monks were reading the Scriptures, a lion limped into the monastery. The men began to flee in terror, but Jerome realized that the animal was injured and asked his fellow monks to stay and help him remove the thorn that tormented the animal's paw. He then dressed the wound, and the lion, once healed, "lost all his wildness, and lived among [them] like a house pet."

Veronese depicts Jerome in the desert, with trees framing the composition. On the right, wooden beams held together by ropes and covered by a roof of leaves indicate a rudimentary shelter from the elements. Beneath is a still life of objects traditionally associated with Jerome: a crucifix, an hourglass, a skull, and two open books. The hourglass and skull refer to the transience of life, while the volumes allude to Jerome's translation of the Bible. The saint is an isolated figure in this landscape, alone in his gruelling devotion. His muscular body is tense, covered only by a red cloth secured by a cord. Toothless and haggard, he focuses his tear-filled eyes on the crucifix, while beating his chest with a rock. The bruised ribs are visible, and drops of blood testify to his self-punishment. A divine wind rustles the saint's graying beard in an extraordinary passage of bravura painting. The faithful lion on the left is the only witness to his frenzied state.