“The Virgin and Child with Saints Jerome and Dominic”, Filippino Lippi, c.1485, National Gallery London (currently not on display). For many years we had an oil painting of St Dominic in our London Priory. It was very dark but you could make out St Dominic’s head, a lily and a book. A friar while visiting from Poland, who was also an art conservator offered to clean it. As the layers of dust and varnish were removed, the knife at the saint’s waist became visible and we realised that it must be a copy of the St Dominic in Lippi’s painting. It had been copied and given to the Priory in the 1930’s. There are may odd things about this painting, not least St Dominic with a knife. What is unusual about the Virgin is not that she is breastfeeding the child, but that she doesn’t seem to notice the two saints on either side. St Jerome is looking towards Our Lady but his eye has a far-away look. True to tradition, he holds a rock with which he will beat his chest in an act of self-mortification. St Dominic is absorbed in his book and seems oblivious to the mother and child. There are lovely and telling details in the background. In the branches of the tree a bird is feeding her young, echoing Mary’s nourishment of the child Jesus. on the right we see the cave of St Jerome. Outside it, his pet lion wards off a bear who is trying to enter it. Behind Mary a man is moving along the path with a donkey. This is surely St Joseph and, so they may be their rest on the way to Egypt. On the extreme right behind St Dominic there is a building by the roadside with people entering and leaving. You can just see a statue of a friar or monk on top and a bell surmounted by a cross. This picture was made as an altarpiece for a family side chapel in the Church of San Pancrazio in Florence. When the Dominican friars first came to Florence in 1216 they were lodged in a what was a kind of hospital which belonged to the Church of San Pancrazio. The building was associated with St Dominic because it was known that he had given the habit to a friar there. After a few years, the friars were given the Church of Santa Maria Novella and this included an infirmary in its cloisters. The tradition of medicinal healing continued and you can still purchase herbal remedies there today. This week, looking more carefully at St Dominic’s knife online, I now realise that it not a knife at all, but rather it is a set of three knife-like instruments attached to him by a brass chain. These may well be the instruments of a herbalist or apothecary. St Dominic is the one then who heals us through his preaching which in turn is the fruit of study. Our Lady nourishes the the child Jesus with her milk, just as we are nourished by him in the sacrament of the altar, above which this picture was hung. But the precursor to both is the repentance shown by st Jerome. We must first know our need of God’s mercy before he can nourish us and heal us. Actually, Lippi is giving us a Dominican sermon on mercy and grace. When our copy of Lippi’s St Dominic was finished, we were a wee bit disappointed, because it was still very dull and brown. You see, the copyist painted what she saw in the 1930’s. Lippi’s beautiful painting was not cleaned until 1959.
St Dominic pray for us!
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.