Here is a Russian icon identified by title as THE MONASTERY OF VENERABLE GERASIM ON THE JORDAN, WHOM THE LION SERVED.
“Whom the lion served”? Obviously there must be an interesting story connected with this.
We find the story of Gerasim of the Jordan and the lion in the book called The Spiritual Meadow, by John Moschus (Ioannes Moskhos). Moschus tells us that a monk named Gerasimos (the Greek form; the Russian form is Gerasim) was walking, one day, along the banks of the Jordan, when he encountered a roaring lion. The lion held one paw in the air, and Gerasimos could see it was bloody and swollen because of a splinter of reed that had become stuck in it. The lion held the paw out as though asking for help, and Gerasimos took the lion’s paw in his hands, pulled the reed out, and cleaned and dressed the wound, after which the lion would not desert Gerasimos, but followed him everywhere, and …
Wait. Doesn’t this sound awfully familiar?
A little thought will bring to mind the old tale from Aesop, written centuries before The Spiritual Meadow, of Androcles and the Lion:
It seems there was a slave named Androcles who was running away from his master. In a forest, he encountered a roaring lion. Androcles began to flee, but soon realized the lion was not chasing him. So he turned back, and found the lion holding out his paw, all bloody and swollen because of a thorn stuck in it. The grateful lion led Androcles to his cave, and brought him food every day….
Again, sound familiar? Well, it is so familiar as a folk motif that it even has a classification number: Aarne-Thompson-Uther #156.
As we see, in the Aesop version, Androcles and the lion become companions and the lion serves him out of gratitude by bringing him food.
In the “Spiritual Meadow” tale of Gerasimos, the lion follows the monk everywhere, and is set to watching an ass that is sent out every day to forage. One day the lion fails to watch the ass closely, and he is stolen away by some traders. When the lion returns to the monastery, Gerasimos thinks the lion ate the ass, and so sets the lion to doing the work for him that the ass did formerly, carrying water for the monastery.
Well, that is not the end of variations. In the Golden Legend (Legenda Aurea) of Jacobus de Voragine, it seems St. Jerome (Hieronymus), while living in Bethlehem and translating the Bible into Latin, was listening to a holy reading with his monastic brethren one day when a lion suddenly came limping into the monastery. The others ran away, but Jerome saw that the lion was holding out his sore paw. So Jerome called to the monks and told them to wash the paw and see what was causing the problem. On doing so, they found a thorn stuck in it. Jerome dealt with the problem, and the lion was then put to taking an ass out to forage and then bring back wood for the monastery. When, as the Gerasimos story, the ass was stolen one day, the lion was then put to doing the work of the ass….
Further, in the medieval Latin collection of stories called The Deeds of the Romans (Gesta Romanorum), a knight out hunting one day meets a lion who shows him a lame paw. The knight applies a healing salve to it. Later, the king of the same country, while hunting in the same forest, captures the lion.
Meanwhile, the knight, who has offended the king, escapes to the forest and becomes a dangerous brigand. Finally he is captured by the king, and is thrown into a pit in which is a hungry lion. But the lion, recognizing the knight who healed his paw, is very friendly to the knight, and though seven days pass, he will not do him harm. The king, astonished by this wonder, forgives and frees the knight.
Of course you probably know that the Aesop Fable of Androcles and the Lion was retold in a play by George Bernard Shaw. Perhaps you have even heard the blackly satirical rendition of the tale as told by Ambrose Bierce:
“A lion roaming through the forest, got a thorn in his foot, and, meeting a shepherd, asked him to remove it. The shepherd did so, and the lion, having just surfeited himself on another shepherd, went away without harming him. Some time afterward the shepherd was condemned on a false accusation to be cast to the lions in the amphitheater.
When they were about to devour him, one of them said, “This is the man who removed the thorn from my foot.”
Hearing this, the others honorably abstained, and the claimant ate the shepherd all himself.”
In any case, you now know that the hagiographical tale of St. Gerasimos and the Lion is related both to the older tale by Aesop of Androcles and the Lion, and you also know that a tale much like that of Gerasimos and the Lion was also told of St. Jerome in The Golden Legend. So now you will know why a lion is often seen in depictions of St. Jerome, such as the placid lion snoozing away beside a dog in the foreground in Albrecht Dürer’s engraving of St. Jerome in His Study.