In the Seattle Art Museum, there is a little painting that often perplexes my students. It shows a scrawny, aged, half-nude man kneeling on desert ground and facing a small crucifix mounted on a stick. His left arm is extended with its empty hand splayed; his right hand holds a gray, prism-shaped rock. And despite his apparent crudeness, this humble fellow sports a golden “hat” that is tilted horizontally, as if he were balancing a plate on his head. At the center of his muscular chest is a symmetrical pattern of red marks.
This crystalline, highly detailed painting, with its scudding cumulus clouds and graceful rock formations, was made by the fifteenth-century Florentine painter Jacopo del Sellaio, a contemporary and admirer of Sandro Botticelli, whose Birth of Venus is one of the icons of Renaissance art. And indeed, Sellaio’s taut elegance certainly reminds one of the better-known master. But what are we to make of the mysterious subject of Sellaio’s little panel? And what of the fact (that we’re just now noticing) that there’s a lion sprawling nearby? Or what about that broad, crimson sunhat, worthy of a British wedding guest, just lying forgotten in the dust?
Some readers will have guessed that Sellaio’s little painting features St. Jerome (AD 342–AD 420), Cardinal of the early church and translator of the Vulgate Bible. Legends have accrued around Jerome of Stridon—not least the story that he once (like the Greek hero Androcles) plucked a thorn from a lion’s paw. The lion in this painting, then, is a clue to the haloed saint’s identity. And so is the red hat, for those who would recognize a cardinal’s regalia. (Even today, prelates elected cardinals are said to have been “given the red hat” by the Pope.) In fact, St. Jerome was a popular subject for “old master” painters, having been rendered with the very same attributes by greats ranging from Bosch to da Vinci to Bellini to Caravaggio.
But why is he kneeling half-naked in the desert?
It’s because, like many of the heroes of his strange era, the famous scholar and cardinal Jerome actually did retreat to the desert to “face his demons.” He was a part-time “desert father,” as they say, and one among many, whose ranks included Anthony the Great, Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, and Moses the Black. Alert to his many lusts—for knowledge, status, pleasure, and influence—Jerome willed his own deprivation, seeking to reorder his desires and bring them under the yoke of Christ.
And in fact, it is this same zeal for self-discipline that explains the curiously decorative mark on Jerome’s chest in our painting. The brushstrokes here are delicate, and the pattern is almost beautiful, but this is not something like “war paint,” nor is it an externalized, heart-like symbol of love or compassion.
It is blood.
Jerome has been pounding himself with that prism-shaped rock.
Relative to our siblings from the past, and also people in many countries today, we “moderns” have a vexed relationship with pain. We tend to mute symptoms rather than probe them for their origins. We tend to complain about small discomforts, and we may even base major decisions on impulsive pain avoidance. We also tend to discount spiritual explanations for our suffering, including psychological suffering, and this proclivity often prevents us from “getting to the bottom” of what torments us. Thus, we must continue to treat our symptoms, seeking numbness, so that we can get through our days and fulfill our obligations, about which we grow increasingly resentful.
We also have a complicated relationship to any self-discipline that causes pain or discomfort. (Just about everyone cringes when they learn that St. Jerome beat himself with a rock.) Often, we view such acts as symptomatic of a psychological disorder; sometimes, we may even view them as a kind of inward-turning, judgmental wickedness. Rarely—taking our cue from historical figures like Vincent van Gogh (who famously cut off his own ear)—we view self-inflicted pain with empathy, as a hazard plaguing sensitive souls. But even then, we can’t (at least most of us) quite get our minds around it. It isn’t healthy. It’s evidence that something isn’t lined up right.
So, it’s hard to understand why someone like Jerome could be glorified for bloodily beating his own chest. It’s easier, maybe, to wave our hands and say: “That was a different time! They were crude and unscientific then. They had a simplistic understanding of body and spirit. Even the ‘intellectuals’ were unenlightened, violent, and savage. We can’t hold people like that to our modern standards, and we can’t really hope to understand them. Best to politely ignore their more embarrassing quirks.”
But I wonder, sometimes, if it is we who are crude and simplistic. Is it possible someone like St. Jerome had a much deeper sense of holistic personhood—of the spirit-body connection—than we do today? Jerome (along with most of his contemporaries) probably often experienced hunger, thirst, fatigue, pain, and weakness to degrees that would overwhelm many of us. And he passed through these experiences, likely emerging stronger. People like Jerome and his fellows witnessed sickness and death up close, again and again, with grotesque, visceral, specificity in ways many of us will never experience, even when we ourselves die. They also witnessed the slaughter of animals, the suffering of famine, and the sweep of horrific plagues.
To see all this, to feel it, to breathe it—and still to choose to discipline oneself, drawing blood from stone—this is an awesome mystery, at least to me. And it cannot only be explained with recourse to mental illness or wicked cruelty. For someone like Jerome, blood and spirit, pain and grace, suffering and devotion, were linked closely and intimately in ways we today perhaps can’t grasp. To prod one was to prod the other; to tame one was to order the other. So inseparable were they that they were sides of the same coin. “Surgical” interventions could penetrate not only flesh, but spirit.
Maybe we can taste this just a little when we make our small Lenten sacrifices: no meat on Fridays, perhaps, or no desserts, or no alcohol. Such little “fasts” may not seem like much, but they’re connected with a golden line, bright and thin like a ray of light, back to the penances of Jerome and other desert fathers (and mothers), whose zeal produced extravagant acts of self-orientation toward a blazing, beautiful, pure, and holy God.
Thus St. Jerome, in Sellaio’s little panel, intensely contemplates a Crucifix braced between rocks. The Florentine artist wants to remind us that Jerome’s actions come from passionate love. The all-lovely Christ, nailed to the cross, suffers. And Jerome, more than wine and women and books and debates, wants to be united with this suffering, beautiful, darling, pitiable Lord. Maybe there is something embarrassing about Jerome’s blunt gesture—his florid attempt to unite with a Beloved about whom he is mad, just downright mad. But there is also something earnest, adorable, bracing. The smiling angels who looked down on poor Jerome, in his humble desert retreat, knew with bright humor that God would honor such extravagant displays with an equally extravagant tenderness.
This Lenten season, I do not wish to strike my chest with a rock. But I do wish, by God’s grace, to come to a more profound understanding of Christ’s sacrifice—an understanding that is not just intellectual, but intimate and empathetic. In fact, how can the two be separate? For true understanding must always yield some kind of action, motivated by a zeal for truth and a generous, energetic love.
When my sacrifices are joined in spirit with Jesus’s, fully and completely, I can “fill up in my flesh” Christ’s suffering (Col. 1:24), as the apostle Paul writes. I can simultaneously achieve greater empathy with Jesus and proclaim in my body, wounds and all, the sacrificial love of the church and its gracious Head.
It is a sublime mystery that our human suffering can be gathered into Christ’s suffering, there to produce a new intensity of both shared experience and total abandon to God’s providence. Perhaps Jerome knew this so well that he strained at the reins. When he thumped with his rock, perhaps, he was seeking a little martyrdom like the heroes of old, who ran to the lions with hymns on their lips and ecstasy in their hearts.
Despite our troubles we are pampered and spoiled, O Holy Spirit. We forget ourselves in little pleasures, petty arguments, trivial honors and satisfying grievances. This Lent, help us grow in self-discipline, that we might become strong and strenuous children of God.