Monday, May 27, 2013

Master Drawings I: Jerome

In honour of the incipient Master Drawings exhibition at the Ashmolean in Oxford, I have decided to append a string of texts or books to some of the pictures which I find most striking, culled from the exhibition slideshow on the Guardian website.

The first is Lucas van Leyden's rendering of Jerome, the saint who is said — historically speaking — to have roamed the Mediterranean brink from somewhere between 347 – 420 A.D. Van Leyden was, aptly enough, of Leyden in the Netherlands; he lived from 1494 to 1533 and thus was a contemporary of Albrecht Dürer, who drew his picture.

The text is from the Golden Legend (Jacobus de Voragine, c. 1275), as it was transferred into English by William Caxton in the 15th century and edited by F.S. Ellis into the tolerably comprehensible modern tongue.

Illustration: Saint Jerome (1521) by Lucas van Leyden, from the Ashmolean [Source: Wikimedia Commons]

St. Jerome and the Lion

"ON a day towards even1 Jerome sat with his brethren for to hear the holy lesson, and a lion came halting suddenly in to the monastery, and when the brethren saw him, anon they fled, and Jerome came against him as he should come against his guest, and then the lion showed to him his foot being hurt. Then he called his brethren, and commanded them to wash his feet and diligently to seek and search for the wound. And that done, the plant2 of the foot of the lion was sore hurt and pricked with a thorn. Then this holy man put thereto diligent cure, and healed him, and he abode ever after as a tame beast with them.

Then St. Jerome saw that God had sent him to them, not only for the health of his foot, but also for their profit, and joined to the lion an office3, by the accord of his brethren, and that was that he should conduct and lead an ass to his pasture which brought home wood, and should keep4 him going and coming, and so he did. For he did that which he was commanded, and led the ass thus as a herdsman, and kept him wisely going and coming, and was to him a right sure keeper and defender, and always at the hour accustomed he and the ass came for to have their refection5 and for to make the ass to do the work accustomed.

ON a time it happed that the ass was in his pasture, and the lion slept fast, and certain merchants passed by with camels and saw the ass alone, and stole him and led him away. And anon after, the lion awoke and when he found not his fellow, he ran groaning hither and thither, and when he saw that he could not find him he was much sorrowful and durst not come in, but abode at the gate of the church of the monastery, and was ashamed that he came without the ass.

And when the brethren saw that he was come more late than he was wont6, and without the ass, they supposed that by constraint of hunger he had eaten the ass, and would not give to him his portion accustomed, and said to him: Go and eat that other part of the ass that thou hast devoured, and fill thy gluttony.

And because they doubted, and they would wit7 if he had so eaten, they went to the pastures of the town to see if they could have any demonstrance of the death of the ass, and they found nothing, and returned and told it to Jerome, and then he commanded them to enjoin him to do the office of the ass8. Then they hewed down bushes and boughs and laid upon him, and he suffered it peaceably.

AND ON a day when he had done his office, he went out to the fields and began to run hither and thither desiring to know what was done to his fellow, and saw from far merchants that came with camels charged and laden, and the ass going tofore them. It was the manner of that region that when the people went far with camels, they had an ass or a horse going tofore with a cord about his neck for to conduct the better the camels.

And when the lion knew the ass, with a great roaring he ran on them so terribly that all the merchants fled, and he so feared9 the camels with beating the earth with his tail that he constrained them to go straight unto the cell with all their charge and lading10.

And when the brethren saw this they told it to Jerome, and he said: Brethren, wash the feet of our guests and give them meat11; abide ye the will of our Lord hereupon.

And then the lion began to run joyously throughout all the monastery, as he was wont to do, and kneeled down to every brother and fawned them with his tail, like as he had demanded pardon of the trespass that he had done. And St. Jerome, which knew well what was to come, said to his brethren: Go and make ye ready all things necessary for guests that be coming to us.

And as he thus said, there came to him a messenger, saying to him that there were guests at the gate that would speak with the abbot. And as soon as they were come they kneeled to the abbot, and required of him pardon. And he raised and made them to stand up goodly, and commanded them to take their own good12, and not to take away other men's. And then they prayed the holy saint that he would take the half of their oil, and he refused it. And at the last he commanded to take a measure of oil, and then they promised that they should bring every year a measure of oil to that church, and their heirs after them."

1 [night]
2 [sole]
3 [gave the lion a job]
4 [protect]
5 [meal]
6 [accustomed to]
7 [know]
8 [make the lion do the ass's work]
9 [frightened]
10 [cargo]
11 [food]
12 [s]

Illustration : Der heilige Andreas in Halbfigur, vor Landschaft (1518?) by Lucas van Leyden. (Oil on oak panel, 22 × 17 cm, in the Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe.) [Source: Wikimedia Commons]

It's a rather depressing tale, I find, from a rampaging pessimist's perspective. As a parable, perhaps, of servitude, it reminded me of Uncle Tom's Cabin (which I however haven't read in years) because the 'masters' evince poor judgment and unkindness but a self-righteous attitude. The thieves of the ass suffer barely any punishment, which seems particularly unjust when the abbey considers the lion's ill-deserved punishment to be a little blunder with no exigency of review of its own practices. It's a poor day when a lion comes off as more of a gentleman than any bipedal individual around him. But as a victim, the lion's conduct — i.e. passive collaboration with tyrannical authority — does not present a very wholesome example, rather along the lines of interpretations of 'turning the other cheek' which fall more under the heading of unhealthy attitudes. Besides the attitude toward the lion during, before and after the punishment is disturbing in that the lion is not free to be a lion. This is, to misquote a Founding Father, a corruption of the nature with which the Creator has endow'd him; and the element of humiliation in the way in which the brothers treat him bears uncomfortable parallels in history.


"Jerome - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia" [Read May 27, 2013]
"Lucas van Leyden - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia"
"Ashmolean exhibition of old masters marks museum's 330th birthday" [Guardian], by Maev Kennedy (May 24, 2013) [Read May 27, 2013]  + "Old masters" slideshow here.

Text from: "The Golden Legend or Lives Of The Saints" [Georgia Regents University; text derived from Internet Medieval Source Book]


Illustration: Milk-maid (1510) by Lucas van Leyden.
(Copper engraving, 11.6 cm x 15.6 cm, in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.) [Source: Wikipedia]

1 comment:

Schröersche said...

Aye, 'tis right- neither do I like the moral of the story which seems to say: trust that wrongful accusation will be as such discovered, that you will be forgiven for nothing and that somebody else will profit from the affair in the end.

The attitude of Jerome shameful. It wasn't very nice to frighten the camels and the merchants, sine those took the ass because it seemed abandoned “and saw the ass alone, and stole him and led him away“, because the reader may keep its doubts, whether the merchants conscientiously stole the ass or whether it is the interpretation of the all-knowing author.

Quite a brooding and unusual picture of Jerome, too. Is he pointing to the ear to urge to listen to the message of the cross as long as there is life in your body, because dead people can't? He seems not really to look at the crucifix, but rather inwardly.