The Last Communion of St. Jerome

Early 1490s
Tempera and gold on wood
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

The painting illustrates chapters 45-49 of pseudo-Eusebius of Cremona's account of the death of St. Jerome in Bethlehem . In that passage the saint asks his brothers first that he be buried near the manger where the infant Jesus had been laid and secondly that they bring him "the body of Christ" — that is, the Eucharistic host. When they do some of the brothers help him get up and kneel to receive it, whereupon he launches into a long speech focused on the reality of Christ's presence in the "bread of life" and his unworthiness to receive it.

Eusebius of Cremona lived in the 5th century, but this account is believed to have been written in the late 13th or early 14th. The "bread of life" discourse and the request to be buried near the manger are matters that would be of particular interest to the Dominican order, which had a profound impact at around this time on Botticelli's spiritual life. The Dominicans were struggling with the teachings of the Catharists, who denied the Real Presence. In Rome the order was associated with the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, where a crèche scene they installed at the end of the 13th century housed what were believed to be relics from the actual manger.

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Photographed at the Metropolitan by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.