ART / Visions from the lion's den

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UNLIKE SOME of art's favourite saints - St Sebastian and St George for example - St Jerome at least definitely existed, roughly between AD 342 and AD 420. As a young man he was an eager student of pagan literature. He then had a vision and retreated to the desert to repent. Later he applied his learning to pious uses, making a Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, which was still in use this century. A Doctor of the Church, he also became a symbol of the solitary religious life, and a popular subject of Renaissance painting, appearing often with his traditional attributes, red cardinal's hat, book and companion lion. In the first of a series called 'Themes and Variations', the National Gallery has put together a show of 18 pictures of the saint from its collection and one from outside it. Bellini, Antonello da Messina and sundry lesser masters feature.

The show has the great virtue of concentrating not on style but subject matter, and it tells a rather Protestant story of Romish error and priestcraft, through which Jerome acquired his various additional legends. Sometimes this happened by mistake. The story of his removing a thorn from a lion's paw was originally about another hermit of the same name. Sometimes by deliberate fabrication: after the Reformation, when the accuracy of his translation was questioned, stories of its divine inspiration were circulated - and an angel began appearing in the pictures. The Cardinal's hat is strictly honorific, as the position did not exist in Jerome's time.

Jerome presented a problematic character to painters. He performed no famous miracles or works of charity. He did not suffer a spectacular martyrdom. His career offered few opportunities for creating a sympathetic figure and his record as a doctrinal hardliner - a scourge of heretics and a stickler for virginity - did not help. The lion story did, of course. Here at least the saint has a faithful friend, a generally benign presence, all the more so for never remotely resembling a lion. It hardly improves over two centuries of representation. Something between a dog and a monkey wearing a wig is the rule.

Jerome appears in line-ups of saints on altar-pieces such as Carlo Crivelli's, where he points to a small model church: the grooving of its pilasters is echoed in the hard vertical folds of his white gown, so he looks like a pillar himself. More often he is alone, either the penitent battering his chest in the desert, or the scholar at his books. Cosimo Tura shows an angular, fanatical figure, avidly raising to heaven his eyes and his right hand (clutching a stone), before bringing it pounding down again on a bleeding torso. Back at the desk, he is a different man. Vincenzo Catena shows a quiet, light, geometrical study - a dream of tidiness - with the saint's sandals put neatly together at one side. Or the two ideas may be combined, as in Bono da Ferrara's scene of a library in the wilderness, books scattered among rocks.

The last and latest picture (c 1625) is George de la Tour's, on loan from Stockholm, and the show is worth seeing for it alone. Paintings by de la Tour are anyway few and far between, and this is one of his finest, painted before he got into candlelight effects, paying minute attention to the textures of cloth, the ins and outs of flesh and bone. The hat, a beautifully turned piece of millinery, is set against the sagging tissue-paper skin and knobbly joints, its scarlet tassles hanging above a bloody scourge. It is a rare image of the saint, in an indoor cell, lionless, a very acutely old man, his face calm and his work done (the open book on the floor), almost on his last legs - but still at his exercise. It was probably made as an inspirational image for an order of flagellants: yes, even at his age, you can keep it up.