Giovanni Bellini’s First St Jerome in the Wilderness

September 26th 2020

“St Jerome in the Wilderness”,  c.1450 -60, Giovanni Bellini, Barber Institute, Birmingham.      You can see this picture in higher resolution at,_Birmingham)#/media/File:Giovanni_Bellini_-_San_Girolamo_nel_deserto.jpg

St Jerome (c.347 – 420) is a Doctor of the Church and the author of the Latin translation of the bible known as the Vulgate.  However, in this image Bellini shows him seated on rock in front of what must been a cave in the desert.  He is dressed only in a thin garment and a lion kneels before him.  The beast hold out his paw in the way a domestic animal might.   But there is a large thorn protruding from the  raised paw and the lion looks to be in pain.  St Jerome raises his right hand in blessing. In the foreground a rabbit looks at us from his burrow.  In the background,  there is the stump of a tree and an ass grazing.  In the far distance beautiful green hills rise and the eye finds its way to the distant horizon.   

In Bellini’s day, devotion to the Fourth Century St Jerome was widespread. Images of the saint, painted on small panels for private devotion, were to be found throughout the Veneto and the North of Italy.   By this time, there were a number of established ways of showing St Jerome.  When in Rome he had been a papal secretary, and because of this, it was mistakenly assumed that he had been a cardinal.  For this reason he is often should with the cardinal’s red hat.  He was a scholar and writer and so is sometimes shown with books and a quill in his study.  As a saint known for doing penance while in the desert, he is sometimes shown there and holding a stone with which he was said to have beaten his chest. 

Perhaps the most common element in all of the depictions of St Jerome is a tame lion.  The story of St Jerome and the lion is told in Jacopo da Voragine’s  “The Golden Legend”.    Voragine relates that n the later part of his life St Jerome lived in a cave in Bethlehem and disciples joined him.   One evening a lion turned up in pain. A thorn had pierced his paw. St Jerome directed his disciples to wash the wound.   In time the lion’s paw was healed and the lion itself had lost his wildness and lived there “like a house pet”.   The community had an ass which carried firewood from the forest.  The lion was tasked with watching over the ass.   “The Golden Legend” says that the two were constant companions and that the lion watched over the ass like a shepherd.  In this picture Bellini tells the story of the saint and the lion. He includes the ass in the distance but leaves out the other elements.   Giovanni Bellini would paint St Jerome several times, but this version, now in Birmingham, is thought to be, not only his first depiction of the saint, but his earliest surviving work.   While there is uncertainty about the picture’s date,  experts all agree that this is a work from Bellini’s youth.   The young Bellini presents us with a very simple but beautiful image of faith, compassion and a harmony between the natural world and humanity. It is worth looking at this image online and those distant hills to see how wonderfully Bellini shows us the beauty of the natural world.

Giovanni Bellini’s First St Jerome in the Wilderness

Edinburgh Catholic Chaplaincy

The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.

The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.

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