The Power of Absolution: Jerome: Doctor of the Church

Lara Belfield

Various sources place St. Jerome’s birth between 320 and 340 A.D., in what is now Croatia. Today he is considered one of the doctors of the church, along with Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo, and Pope Gregory I.  Although his parents were Christian, he was not baptized until he reached adulthood.  He was a renowned scholar, and in 363 began his classical studies in Rome before later journeying to Antioch.[1]  It was there, in 375, that he supposedly had the vision where he was punished for retaining and studying “pagan” literature more than the Scripture.  During this vision, he even claimed he was transported to Heaven where he was “scourged” for his sins and awoke with the punishing marks on his back.  After this life-altering experience, Jerome renounced his classical studies and devoted his life to the Gospel, spending five years as a penitent hermit in the desert.  Jerome journeyed to Rome in 382 under the orders of Pope Damascus, who tasked him with translating the Hebrew Bible.  Pope Damascus died in 382, and at this time Jerome moved to Palestine before eventually settling in Bethlehem to establish a monastery in 386 (fig. 16).  Jerome’s final days were spent in the holy city, and it was there that he finished his most notable works before passing away in the early fifth century.[2]

Tomb of St. Jerome, Church St. Catherine's, Bethlehem. Photo Credit: Tamer Shabaneh

Figure 16: Tomb of St. Jerome, Church St. Catherine’s, Bethlehem.
Photo Credit: Tamer Shabaneh

One of St. Jerome’s most common and distinguishable attributes is that of the lion.  According to his legend, Jerome was lecturing students in Bethlehem when an injured lion limped into the monastery.  Rather than react fearfully, Jerome calmly removed a thorn from the lion’s paw and healed the creature.  The tamed lion stayed by Jerome’s side and served the saint until his death.[3]  The most commonly studied depictions of St. Jerome include the lion, although there is some scholarly debate as to whether attribute was spread first through literature or art.

[1] Grete Ring, “St. Jerome Extracting the Thorn from the Lion’s Foot,” The Art Bulletin 27, no. 3 (Sep. 1945): 188.

[2] Ring, 188.

[3] Ring, 188