The final lines of Marianne Moore’s 1959 poem, ‘St. Jerome and his Lion’ end on an emphatically triumphal note: ‘Blaze on, picture,/ saint, beast; and Haile Selassie, with household/ lions as the symbol of sovereignty.’ Representations of the Saint in the company of a lion are familiar from art history, not least in the case of the da Vinci painting on which the Moore poem is based, and in most of these instances, the artists choose to emphasise the ‘sovereignty’ of which Moore speaks in the poem. In them, Jerome is seen praying, reading, contemplating the Gospel, and, in at least one case, sleeping while his lion companion attends him in an intensely chillaxed attitude. Jerome’s power over the creature, his ‘dominion’—to slip into the vocabulary of theology—is clear and essentially unquestioned. On viewing the works in Jesse Darling’s exhibition, The Ballad of Saint Jerome, at Tate Britain, such hierarchies are not only interrogated and destabilised, but larger questions about the nexus of history, myth, belief, and need are placed before the viewer, and St. Jerome’s narrative becomes a much more contemporary and less cartoonish one.
Those not steeped in the biographies of the Saints may be wondering what the connection to St. Jerome and his lion might be. A popular legend runs that Jerome was visited by a lion at a monastery at which he was working in Bethlehem. Unfazed by his fellow monks’ panicked fleeing (or desire to kill the creature, in some versions), Jerome confronts the lion and finds the source of the problem, a thorn in its paw which he removes, gaining the lion’s eternal loyalty to him as they perform a number of good works together (astute readers of this narrative, not least Marianne Moore, may find parallels with the fable of Aesop known as ‘Androcles and the Lion’). This cross-species partnership, in the iconography and parlance of the contemporary period might well be metaphorised as the relationship of Batman and Robin with the lion comfortably situated in the role of the earnest, but sometimes rather bumbling, Boy Wonder. The variation on the St. Jerome story presented by Jesse Darling explicitly appears to address this metaphor, pairing the lion with a version of the Caped Crusader (to use Batman’s contextually suggestive metonym) across a range of works that are alternately comically heroic and intensely fragile and moving in ways that touch similar devotional themes as the more Moorean renderings of Jerome from history.
Jesse Darling is a master of finding the interrogative in the declarative, and The Ballad of Saint Jerome expresses this quality in the artist’s aesthetic in exemplary fashion. The scale of the Tate’s galleries can work against some contemporary artists, but Jesse Darling’s fluency in finding the questions that expose deflationary truths inherent in relations and spaces shines, not to say ‘blazes’, in this exhibition. The viewer enters and is flanked by two sculptures of lions encased in glass, one carrying a ball in its mouth and the other feeding from what looks like a hamster’s water dispenser. These works are collectively entitled ‘Sphinxes of the gate’ and are singularly identified as ‘Pet sentry’ and ‘Wounded sentry’ (2018). Wounds, and the attendance of wounds, surround the viewer in the exhibition: wounded sentries, wounded figures, wounded materials, wounded walls, such as the one the exhibition’s centerpiece, ‘St. Jerome in the Wilderness’ (2018), stands before. Composed of a collection of poles topped with splayed ring binders, toilet brushes (mercifully store-fresh), and rubber ferrules are among the spindly metal branches of these anthropogenic trees. This ‘wilderness’ stands before a gaping, snaggletoothed hole smashed into a temporary wall. It is a fearsome prospect, speaking of various forms of vulnerability and isolation, states ascetic Saints like Jerome may have coveted, but which carry particular foreboding in the contemporary moment of precarious economies, racist stigmatisation, and digitally atomised individuals drifting in an increasingly febrile politics which may well presage a rendezvous with the abyss. The objects topping the flora of this forest bespeak human physical vulnerability, but also the iconography of order and bureaucracy, thus, in the Britain of 2018, it is difficult not to connect them to signifiers of the country’s increasingly vulnerable National Health Service, but any such single reading is far, far too simplistic; the work is a metaphor, but also a metaphor about the human need for metaphors.
Though perhaps a more muted work, the artist’s drawing on aluminum foil, ‘The lion and batman in the garden (temporary relief)’ (2018), featuring a kneeling and beatified Batman alongside a sainted lion nursing what is perhaps a hybrid cat-bat-child struck me as perhaps the most emotionally affecting work in an intensely powerful show—made all the more so for its willingness to integrate humour as in the drawing, ‘Lion in wait for Saint Jerome and his medical kit’ (2018), in which the titular lion crouches, half defensively, half giddily, while bearing up a harpoon-like weapon. Healing is going to hurt, for both lion and Saint. ‘The lion and batman in the garden’ is perhaps the work most directly connected to the familiar depictions of Jerome and the lion, but it is not a work of triumphalism, or of dominionism, or complacent sovereignty. It is a work concerned with vulnerability—be it willed, inherent, or adventitious—and the ways in which this vulnerability can create communities. It is, thus, a work of art that, like its subject, can heal.
William Kherbek is the writer of the novels Ecology of Secrets (Arcadia Missa, 2013) and ULTRALIFE (Arcadia Missa, 2016) and the epic poem, Pull Factor (2016). Kherbek’s poetry collections, Everyday Luxuries and 26 Ideologies for Aspiring Ideologists will be published this year by Arcadia Missa and If a Leaf Falls Press respectively.