WEYDEN, Rogier van der
(b. 1400, Tournai, d. 1464, Bruxelles)
St Jerome and the Lionc. 1450
Oil on oak panel, 31 x 25 cm
Institute of Arts, Detroit
The little painting actually shows two scenes from the life of this Doctor of the Church. In the foreground he uses a small instrument to take a thorn out of a lion's paw. In the background he is chastising himself. But unlike this latter episode, which goes back to a true fact in the saint's life, notably his penitential retreat into the wilderness as a hermit from 375 to 380, the taking off of his cardinal's clothes and beating his breast with a stone are fictitious. The legend that he was a cardinal, and that during a reading to his disciples in Bethlehem he was approached by a limping lion with a thorn in its paw, only originated in the thirteenth century. The canonical jurist Joannes Andreas of Bologna (c. 1330-1348) made use of this to propagate the cardinal's function and the lion as fixed attributes of St Jerome.
The composition of this painting has been altered in various places so that all conclusions which have hitherto been reached as to the authorship and the relationship to similar compositions need to be treated with caution. The lion was originally painted with both paws on the ground and with its head in profile, while Jerome's right arm pointed more in the direction of the book, which may originally have been a writing tablet. His hat also hung on his back and he was not lying on the ground. It is not possible to establish when these alterations took place. Judging by the scene in the background which also seems to have been added later, it might have been by a later, weaker hand. The work is unmistakably Rogierian in style, which also corresponds with the age of the panel. It is difficult to evaluate the extent to which the work has suffered in quality from the interventions of his studio.