St. Jerome and the Lion

St. Jerome

St. Jerome pulling a thorn from the lion’s foot, Niccolò Antonio Colantonio, ca. 1450, Museo di Capodimonte, Naples


Today is the feast of St. Jerome (AD 347-420), doctor and father of the church (click on his name for a biography) and patron saint of librarians. One of the stories from his life is his encounter with a lion at the monastery in Bethlehem. The other monks ran away in fear, but Jerome realized that the lion was in pain so he calmly removed a thorn from the beast’s foot and the lion became his devoted companion. There’s a bit of irony here since Jerome was known for his irascible temper! Because of this legend, Jerome is often depicted with a lion, as in the painting above by Neapolitan painter, Niccolò Antonio Colantonio, about whom very little is known. In this charming image, we see Jerome in the act of extracting the thorn. The setting is a scholar’s study, reflecting Jerome’s occupation as a scholarly translator, writer, and theologian. It is thought that Colantonio was influenced by the Flemish master, Jan van Eyck, who visited Naples about this time and whose image of St. Jerome we see below, a painting which may have been started by the great master and finished by his workshop after his death.

St. Jerome in His Study, Workshop of Jan van Eyck, 1442, Detroit Institute of Arts

St. Jerome in His Study, Workshop of Jan van Eyck, 1442, Detroit Institute of Arts

In Colantonio’s work, Jerome has set aside his Cardinal’s hat for a scholar’s cap and the lion is sized more accurately than the van Eyck painting. But we see the Netherlandish influence in the details of the homely objects in the messy study and the attempted perspective of the tilted desk and table.

We also see this image of Jerome and the lion in this small bronze sculpture, attributed to Bartolomeo Bellano of Padua in the late 15th century.

St. Jerome and the Lion, Bartolomeo Bellano, late 15th c., Louvre, Paris

St. Jerome and the Lion, Bartolomeo Bellano, late 15th c., Louvre, Paris

From the Louvre website:

A compact sculptural group

This compact group is composed around a pyramid structure. At the saint’s feet can be seen a book, recalling his extensive writings on the Bible, and a cardinal’s hat, an allusion to his traditional role as one of the Christian church’s Latin Fathers (his highest official ecclesiastical rank was in fact a spell as secretary to Pope St Damasus I). The lion’s mane shows it to be a mature animal, albeit represented here as the size of a small dog. Man and beast gaze intently at one another. The modeling of Jerome’s simple robes, clearly made from coarse, heavy fabric, reinforces the direct, humane character of the group.

Bartolomeo Bellano: a sculptor of the Paduan school

The group is attributed to Bartolomeo Bellano, a Paduan sculptor who was a pupil and successor of Donatello (the creator of the celebrated bronze high altar in the church of San Antonio in Padua, known as the Santo). The attribution to Bellano is based on stylistic comparisons with reliefs executed for his monument to Pietro Roccabonella (1491-94, in the church of San Francesco in Padua). The reliefs are still in situ, but the monument was completed by Andrea Riccio in 1498, after Bellano’s death, and has not survived in its original form. Vasari notes that Bellano created a number of small-scale works in marble and bronze for Pope Paul II. The present group may well be one of these.

Feast of the Archangels

Michael Tramples Satan, Guido Reni, 1636, Santa Maria della Concezione church, Rome. A mosaic of the same painting decorates St. Michael's Altar in St. Peter's Basilica.

The beautiful vision of Reni! Michael Tramples Satan, Guido Reni, 1636, Santa Maria della Concezione church, Rome. A mosaic of the same painting decorates St. Michael’s Altar in St. Peter’s Basilica.

War broke out in heaven;
Michael and his angels battled against the dragon.
The dragon and its angels fought back,
but they did not prevail
and there was no longer any place for them in heaven.
The huge dragon, the ancient serpent,
who is called the Devil and Satan,
who deceived the whole world,
was thrown down to earth,
and its angels were thrown down with it.

Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say:
“Now have salvation and power come,
and the Kingdom of our God
and the authority of his Anointed.
For the accuser of our brothers is cast out,
who accuses them before our God day and night.
They conquered him by the Blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony;
love for life did not deter them from death.
Therefore, rejoice, you heavens,
and you who dwell in them.”

Revelation 12:7-12

In Catholic writings and traditions, St. Michael the Archangel acts as the defender of the Church and chief opponent of Satan. He also assists souls at the hour of death, as we see here in the central panel from one of my favorite works of all time, The Beaune Altarpiece (c. 1445–50), often called The Last Judgement, a large polyptych altarpiece by the Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden.

The Last Judgement (detail), Rogier van der Weyden, 1445-50

The Last Judgement (detail), Rogier van der Weyden, 1445-50


Here’s a prayer to St. Michael the Archangel written by Pope Leo XIII in 1884:
St. Michael the Archangel, 
defend us in the day of Battle; 
Be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the Devil. 
May God rebuke Him, we humbly pray, 
and do Thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host, 
by the power of God, cast into Hell, 
Satan and all the other evil spirits, 
who prowl through the world, 
seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Flemish), The Fall of the Rebel Angels, 1562, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels.

A phantasmagoric vision by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Flemish), The Fall of the Rebel Angels, 1562, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels.


Saint Michael expelling Lucifer and the Rebellious Angels‎, Peter Paul Rubens, 1622, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum

Love me some Rubens! Saint Michael expelling Lucifer and the Rebellious Angels‎, Peter Paul Rubens, 1622, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid


Here’s a link to an informative article about the Archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael.



The Little Children

An argument arose among the disciples
about which of them was the greatest. 
Jesus realized the intention of their hearts and took a child
and placed it by his side and said to them,
“Whoever receives this child in my name receives me,
and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.
For the one who is least among all of you
is the one who is the greatest.”

Then John said in reply, 
“Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name 
and we tried to prevent him
because he does not follow in our company.”
Jesus said to him, 
“Do not prevent him, for whoever is not against you is for you.”

Luke 9:46-50


If you Google “Jesus with children”, the image results are mostly sappy, poor quality illustrations that cannot be called art.


Mostly bad art


But googling Pope Francis with children provides an array of joyful photographs! So, no art today, just these:


The living Gospel!

The living Gospel!


Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets!

Moses Elects the 70 Elders, Jacob de Wit, 1737, Royal Palace of Amsterdam

Moses Elects the 70 Elders, Jacob de Wit, 1737,
Royal Palace of Amsterdam

The LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to Moses.

Taking some of the spirit that was on Moses,
the LORD bestowed it on the seventy elders;
and as the spirit came to rest on them, they prophesied.

Now two men, one named Eldad and the other Medad,
were not in the gathering but had been left in the camp.
They too had been on the list, but had not gone out to the tent;
yet the spirit came to rest on them also,
and they prophesied in the camp.
So, when a young man quickly told Moses,
“Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp, “
Joshua, son of Nun, who from his youth had been Moses’aide, said,
“Moses, my lord, stop them.”
But Moses answered him,
“Are you jealous for my sake?
Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets!
Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!”

Numbers 11:25-29

From the Google Cultural Institute:

“This vast painting by Jacob de Wit fills the entire wall. Moses stands in the centre, surrounded by the 70 elders he has selected. Behind Moses and off to one side, screened by a tent flap, is the Ark of the Covenant containing the Ten Commandments engraved on tablets of stone. In the top left-hand corner, a group of clouds indicates the presence of God.
Moses was told by God to select 70 elders to receive some of the Holy Spirit conferred on him and to share with him the burden of ruling the people of Israel. The story illustrates the task of the 36 members of the council who met in the Council Chamber (Vroedschapskamer). Like the elders in the Bible story, they helped run the city by advising the four burgomasters.
De Wit made this painting between November 1735 and October 1737 in response to a commission from the city fathers. There is a preparatory study for the work in the Amsterdam Municipal Archives.”


Drawing by Jacob de Wit of his painting.

Drawing by Jacob de Wit of his painting.


We are long beyond the Golden Age of Dutch Painting (16th-17th centuries–think Rembrandt, Rubens) with this work, and Jacob de Wit would be unlikely to make any list of great Dutch painters. Nevertheless, this painting fits our reading today and has its own charms.

If you click on the first image to enlarge it and look at the small grouping between two palm trees near the top right, you see the face of a dark-haired man staring out at you. This is almost certainly a self-portrait of the artist himself. Interestingly, and perhaps further confirmation that it’s a self-portrait, this image is not included in his preparatory drawing of the painting.

The Joy of the Shepherd

Pope Francis, our Shepherd

Pope Francis, our Shepherd!

The Lord will guard us as a shepherd guards his flock.
Hear the word of the LORD, O nations,
proclaim it on distant isles, and say:
He who scattered Israel, now gathers them together,
he guards them as a shepherd guards his flock.
R. The Lord will guard us as a shepherd guards his flock.
The LORD shall ransom Jacob,
he shall redeem him from the hand of his conqueror.
Shouting, they shall mount the heights of Zion,
they shall come streaming to the LORD’s blessings.
R. The Lord will guard us as a shepherd guards his flock.
Then the virgins shall make merry and dance,
and young men and old as well.
I will turn their mourning into joy,
I will console and gladden them after their sorrows.
R. The Lord will guard us as a shepherd guards his flock.

Jeremiah 31:10-13


Give thanks to God for our joyful and loving Pope Francis, the shepherd of his flock!

Who Do You Say That I Am?


Once when Jesus was praying in solitude,
and the disciples were with him,
he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?”
They said in reply, “John the Baptist; others, Elijah;
still others, ‘One of the ancient prophets has arisen.’”
Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter said in reply, “The Christ of God.”
He rebuked them and directed them not to tell this to anyone.

He said, “The Son of Man must suffer greatly
and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed and on the third day be raised.”

Luke 9:18-22


Herod’s Palace-Fortress at Machaerus

Herod the tetrarch heard about all that was happening,
and he was greatly perplexed because some were saying,
“John has been raised from the dead”;
others were saying, “Elijah has appeared”;
still others, “One of the ancient prophets has arisen.”
But Herod said, “John I beheaded.
Who then is this about whom I hear such things?”
And he kept trying to see him.

Luke 9:7-9

According to the Jewish historian Josephus, the palace at Machaerus was the site at which John the Baptist was beheaded by Herod Antipas in 32 AD. It was built by Herod the Great, whose son was Herod Antipas the Tetrarch who ruled from 4 BC to 29 AD.



The palace was constructed atop a great promontory overlooking the Dead Sea and surrounded by deep ravines and a fortress wall, 100 meters long and 60 meters wide with three corner towers, each sixty cubits (90 ft) high.



Within the fortress, excavators have revealed the Herodian palace, which includes a large courtyard and an elaborate bath, with fragments of the mosaic floors still remaining. An aqueduct and cisterns provided water for the inhabitants.


The fortress was destroyed down to the foundations by the Romans in 72 AD after Jewish rebels occupied it. Twentieth century archaeologists have done a partial reconstruction of it and re-erected several columns.


Ezra the Bookbinder

At the time of the evening sacrifice, I, Ezra, rose in my wretchedness,
and with cloak and mantle torn I fell on my knees,
stretching out my hands to the LORD, my God.

I said: “My God, I am too ashamed and confounded to raise my face to you,
O my God, for our wicked deeds are heaped up above our heads
and our guilt reaches up to heaven.
From the time of our fathers even to this day
great has been our guilt,
and for our wicked deeds we have been delivered up,
we and our kings and our priests,
to the will of the kings of foreign lands,
to the sword, to captivity, to pillage, and to disgrace,
as is the case today.

“And now, but a short time ago, mercy came to us from the LORD, our God,
who left us a remnant and gave us a stake in his holy place;
thus our God has brightened our eyes
and given us relief in our servitude.
For slaves we are, but in our servitude our God has not abandoned us;
rather, he has turned the good will
of the kings of Persia toward us.
Thus he has given us new life
to raise again the house of our God and restore its ruins,
and has granted us a fence in Judah and Jerusalem.”
Ezra 9:5-9

Illustration from Codex Amiantinus showing bookbinding and bookcase

Illustration from Codex Amiatinus showing bookbinding and bookcase

The Codex Amiatinus is the earliest complete copy of the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible of St. Jerome. The frontispiece of the Codex Amiatinus illustrated here shows a saintly figure, presumably the Old Testament prophet Ezra, writing a manuscript on his lap and seated before an open book cupboard or armarium, which contains a Bible in nine volumes.  Clasps holding the covers of the bindings closed are clearly visible on the fore-edges of the bound manuscripts lying on the shelves—one of the earliest images of this binding feature.

The Codex Amiatinus was commissioned by Abbot Ceolfrid at the library of the monastery at Wearmouth-Jarrow in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria in England, in about 692. The image shown here is one of the earliest surviving images of bookbindings, and also one of the earliest surviving Medieval images of an early form of bookcase, although there is an armarium containing the gospels depicted in a mosaic from the fifth century Mausoleum of Galla Placidia at Ravenna.

Armarium (bookcase), mosaic, Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, 5th century

Armarium (bookcase), mosaic, Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, 5th century

 Why is Ezra shown as a bookbinder? In an article discussing the written codification of the Jewish books of the Torah, one scholar writes:

“This is the time of the model priest and scribe, Ezra, who realizes a new Israel needs to be consolidated around the Torah of Moses. In a highly symbolic public reading of “the book of the law of Moses” (Nehemiah 8), Ezra’s ritualized performance of “doing it right, doing things by the book”, not only legitimated and elevated the authority of specific ritual practices, but moreover, by cloaking the ritual with blessings and responses, obeisances, and a hierarchical display of community members, it further reinforced the validity of the spoken text…Ezra was more than just a priest and scribe, he and the Levites were scholars and teachers of the Torah….Ezra was indeed an innovator, and in a feat of scribal genius, fused various Pentateuchal traditions in one literary text, known as the Law of Moses. However, for Ezra’s book to reach canonization status, it needed the power of the Persian authorities to make the book binding to the people. Thus, Ezra, would be known as the father of Judaism and be forever linked with the restoration of Judean culture in the Persian period.” 

So Ezra is one of the priests responsible for assembling and codifying the early oral and written sources into a cohesive text, so it makes sense that the early traditions consider him as a bookbinder.

Back to our manuscript: To offer the Codex Amiatinus as a present to Pope Gregory II, Abbot Ceolfrid, began the long journey from England to Rome in old age, departing in 716. Unfortunately, Ceolfrid died on the journey,  but his associates brought the volume to the Pope. The book later appears in the 9th century in Abbey of the Saviour, Monte Amiata in Tuscany (hence the description “Amiatinus”). It was later used in the revision of the Vulgate by Pope Sixtus V in 1585-90.

One of the largest and heaviest of all medieval manuscripts, the single volume of the Codex Amiatinus weighs 75 pounds and is 1914 inches high, 1338 inches in breadth, and 7 inches thick with 1,040 folios or pages of vellum (calf skin). The monastery secured a grant of additional land to raise the 2000 head of cattle needed to produce the quantity of vellum required. The manuscript  is now preserved in the Laurentian Library (Bibliotheca Medicea Laurenziana) in Florence.

Codex Amiatinus

Codex Amiatinus


Darius the Great of Persia

Relief of Darius receiving tribute, from the Palace at Persepolis, Iran

In today’s first reading, we read of the magnanimous gesture of King Darius of Persia (modern Iran) towards the Jews:

King Darius issued an order to the officials
of West-of-Euphrates:
“Let the governor and the elders of the Jews
continue the work on that house of God;
they are to rebuild it on its former site.
I also issue this decree
concerning your dealing with these elders of the Jews
in the rebuilding of that house of God:
From the royal revenue, the taxes of West-of-Euphrates,
let these men be repaid for their expenses, in full and without delay.
I, Darius, have issued this decree;
let it be carefully executed.”

The elders of the Jews continued to make progress in the building,
supported by the message of the prophets,
Haggai and Zechariah, son of Iddo.
They finished the building according to the command
of the God of Israel
and the decrees of Cyrus and Darius
and of Artaxerxes, king of Persia.
They completed this house on the third day of the month Adar,
in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius.
The children of Israel–priests, Levites,
and the other returned exiles–
celebrated the dedication of this house of God with joy.
For the dedication of this house of God,
they offered one hundred bulls,
two hundred rams, and four hundred lambs,
together with twelve he-goats as a sin-offering for all Israel,
in keeping with the number of the tribes of Israel.
Finally, they set up the priests in their classes
and the Levites in their divisions
for the service of God in Jerusalem,
as is prescribed in the book of Moses.

Ezra chapter 6


Darius, who ruled the vast Persian Empire from 522-486 BCE, is here enforcing the decree of Cyrus the Great, deliverer of the Jews. He even adds to it in his new decree, ordering that the Jews be left alone in their work, that the project be funded out of the taxes on the “Beyond the River” province Syria and Judea), that the Persian state provide a steady stream of animals and other products necessary to the continued offerings of the Jewish national worship in Jerusalem, and that violation was punishable by death.

Seal of Darius I, agate, British Museum

Seal of Darius I slaying lions from his chariot, a standard depiction of royal power, agate, British Museum

Darius seems to have been a fairly enlightened ruler who respected the religions of his subject peoples, created the first Persian coins, organized the government bureaucracy, constructed royal roads throughout the empire, and reformed the Babylonian calendar that is still used by the Jews to this day.

Darius the Great's Behistun Inscription

Darius the Great’s Behistun Inscription

Much of our information about his reign comes to us from his own words carved in the Behistun Inscription, which lists his titles and conquests. He is also the Persian ruler whose armies invaded Greece and were defeated by the Greeks at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE, written about by the Greek historian Herodotus.

Drawing of an Image of Darius I from a Greek Vase

Drawing of an Image of Darius I from a Greek Vase


Darius was planning another invasion of Greece that he would lead himself, but he died before this plan could be carried out. His embalmed body was buried in this tomb, dug from the cliffs at Naqsh-e Rustam alongside the tombs of other Persian kings.


Tomb of Darius I at Naqsh-e Rustam

Tomb of Darius I at Naqsh-e Rustam



Who, me??

The Calling of Saint Matthew, 1598–1600 Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi), Oil on canvas; 322 x 340 cm Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

The Calling of Saint Matthew, 1598–1600
Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi),
Oil on canvas; 322 x 340 cm
Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome


Have you ever been called by God? That may seem like an outrageous question to most of us. Who, me? Called by God? How could that be? How would we even know if we were called? Most of us probably don’t hear a voice from heaven as Jesus did at his baptism, or as Samuel did in his sleep; if we did we might think something was seriously amiss and seek help and medication asap!

However, our calling can happen in far more prosaic ways. We see an example of this unexpected occurrence in The Calling of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio, the bad boy of Baroque art. Though prodigiously talented, Caravaggio (1571-1610) was a brawler and a murderer who died alone while on the run from the law. He was nearly forgotten until the twentieth century, when his genius and influence on the artists of his day was recognized. His use of extreme realism and chiaroscuro, or the contrast between light and dark, give his paintings an immediacy and drama that are instantly recognizable. He also had many imitators, known as the Caravaggisti.

As Jesus passed by,
he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post.
He said to him, “Follow me.”
And he got up and followed him.
While he was at table in his house,
many tax collectors and sinners came
and sat with Jesus and his disciples.
The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples,
“Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
He heard this and said,
“Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.
Go and learn the meaning of the words,
I desire mercy, not sacrifice.

I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”

Matthew 9:9-13

In Caravaggio’s work, we see a dingy room with light streaming in from a high window outside the picture frame, illuminating the figures at the table. Jesus stands at the far right with Peter, both of them barefoot. The outstretched hand of Jesus and the diagonal edge of the ray of light both point to the bearded man in the black hat, Levi/Matthew, who points at himself as if to say, “Who, me?”



The darkness and grime of the room signal to us the nefarious activity taking place there. The well-dressed men at the table, presumably tax collectors like Matthew, are counting their money and the two figures at left are totally absorbed in their ill-gotten gains. Tax collectors were hated because they extorted even more than the myriad of Roman taxes from the people, and as the passage indicates, because of this they were classed with sinners.


It can be no accident that the pointing hand of Jesus is directly beneath the cross in the window, nor that his hand is in the same languid pose as that of Adam in the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The theological symbolism here is that Jesus is the new Adam, sent to call all men from the death brought about by Adam’s sin, to salvation by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

The passage in Mark continues with the Pharisees complaining that Jesus eats with these sinners and tax collectors. Many people were drawn to Jesus, including the unlovable and the unloved, the outcasts and the despised, the criminals and the poor. Rather than adhering to orthodox rules of purity, Jesus broke bread with them, spoke with them, and touched them, which shocked the Pharisees. Jesus’ reply, that he comes for the sick and the sinner, is spoken to all of us, “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We are all called to be transformed. Where are you called? If a barefoot man in a bar suddenly points at you and says to follow him, how would you respond? It is so easy for us to miss the summons to God’s will for our lives.

Where is your call? Jesus is saying to you, “Follow me.”