Italian Paintings – The Last Communion Of St. Jerome

The Last Communion of St. Jerome is his masterpiece, and also stands at the head of a long list of pictures representing St. Jerome either doing penance in the desert, and “knocking at his poor old breast, with his great round stone to subdue the flesh,” or writing his famous translation, or meditating on the mystery of the Incarnation.

St. Jerome was born A. D. 342 at Stridonium, in Dalmatia. His father was very rich, and as Jerome showed a decided taste for learning, he was sent to Rome to be educated. He studied under Donatus, the celebrated grammarian. He fell into evil ways for a time. When he was about thirty he was baptized and vowed himself to a life of celibacy.

In 372 he went to Palestine, longing to live in the place and among the scenes where Christ lived. He founded a monastery at Bethlehem.

In 382 he visited Rome and was made secretary to Pope Damasus. He remained three years, then returned to Bethlehem, where he died in 420. The cell in which he wrote his translation of the Bible is still shown and is held in great veneration.

St. Jerome was one of the four Doctors of the Latin church. As a subject for painting, he was by far the most popular. The reason for this: the exceedingly interesting and striking character of the man, the picturesque incidents of his life, his importance and dignity as founder of Monachism in the West, and as author of the universally received translation of the Old and New Testaments into the Latin language.

As Doctor of the church and teacher, he enters into every scheme of Ecclesiastical deco-ration and finds a place in all sacred buildings.

His symbol is the lion. It is said that one evening as he sat within the gates of his monastery at Bethlehem, a lion entered limping as if in pain. All the brethren ran when they saw him, but Jerome arose and went forward to meet him, as though he were a guest. The lion lifted his paw, and St. Jerome on examining it found that it was wounded by a thorn, which he extracted, and cared for the foot until it was healed.

The grateful beast remained with his benefactor ever after.

This story is so often represented in pictures of St. Jerome that it cannot be ignored. The truth is, the lion symbol was given to St. Jerome in ancient times because it was befitting him, on account of his fervid, fiery nature, and his life in the wilderness.

When St. Jerome knew that he was dying, he asked his disciples to take him into the chapel of his church to receive the last communion. Domenichino’s picture represents the aged saint, feeble, emaciated, dying, borne in the arms of his disciples to the chapel of his monastery and placed within the porch.

A young priest sustains him. Santa Paula kneels and kisses one of his bony hands. She was one of his converts at Rome, a patrician woman, a descendant of the Scipios. The saint fixes his eager eyes on the countenance of the priest who is about to administer the sacrament. His is a noble, dignified figure, in a rich ecclesiastical dress. A deacon holds the cup, and an attendant priest the book and taper; the lion droops his head with an expression of grief ; the eyes and attention of all are on the dying saint. Four angels hovering above look down upon the scene.

Domenichino painted this picture for the church of St. Jerome, which was built, according to tradition, on the spot where the house of Santa Paula stood and where she entertained St. Jerome in Rome in 382 A. D.

The picture once hung in St. Peter’s but was replaced by a mosaic copy. It is now in the Vatican picture gallery. It is one of the twelve great pictures of the world.

The four Doctors or Fathers of the Latin church were St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, St. Augustin, St. Gregory. In art they represent the church militant. Mrs. Jameson says : “As teachers, as pastors, as logicians and advocates, they wrote, argued, contended, suffered and at length, after a long and fierce struggle against opposing doctrines, they fixed the articles of faith thereafter received in Christendom. The Evangelists and the Apostles in art represent the spiritual church.”

( Originally Published 1912 )

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