Domenichino and Huxley's Antic Hay.
After leaving his job Gumbril, in search of money and sex, picks up Rosie Shearwater, goes back to her dreadful little maisonnette and seduces her under an engraving of Domenichino's St. Jerome, which all commentators on the novel ignore. Gumbril knew this picture from his childhood home and remembered wondering why that old bishop "should be handing the naked old man a five-shilling piece." As they enter Rosie's bedroom, Huxley gives a serious rather than satiric description of the work that "looked darkly out upon the pink room":
Utterly remote, absorbed in their grave, solemn ecstasy, the robed and mitred priest held out, the dying saint yearningly received, the body of the Son of God. The ministrants looked gravely on, the little angels looped in the air above a gravely triumphant festoon, the lion slept at the saint's feet, and through the arch beyond, the eye traveled out over a quiet country of dark trees and hills.... [Gumbril] pointed to the round bright wafer which the priest holds in his hand and whose averted disk is like the essential sun at the centre of the picture's harmonious universe (Huxley, p. 108).
Huxley credits the bishop with a miter he doesn't wear and, with Jerome on the verge of death, puns three times on "grave" and "gravely." Gumbril still finds the picture horribly obscure, but an analysis clarifies its meaning and thematic significance.
Jerome, one of the most learned of the church fathers, translated the Hebrew and Greek bibles into Latin. The story of his death in Bethlehem comes from Pseudo-Eusebius of Cremona, who recorded that the ninety-year-old saint, "'with great crying and gasping,' received communion with his disciples shortly before death" (Richard Spear, Domenichino, New Haven, 1982, p. 176).
The painting, for two centuries one of the most famous images in Europe, was (as Huxley notes) Nicolas Poussin's favorite. In 1713 the philosopher Lord Shaftesbury called it "the best picture in the world,' and in 1836 the painter John Constable wrote: "The subject of the picture is an aged and decrepit man, dying, attended by the ministers of religion. ... The placid aspect of this simple landscape seems like a requiem to soothe the departing spirit."
In the painting, beneath a high barrel vault that opens on to a tranquil Italian landscape, four fluttering angels (the oldest one with golden curls and a Leonardesque face) wait to waft Jerome to heaven. A tall candle glitters next to a column, and four disciples hover in a circle and support the dying saint. Two others on the right-one holding the cup of communion wine, the other kneeling with Jerome's Vulgate translation in his hand-watch anxiously and attentively as the bishop, bald and bearded like Jerome, bends over to hand him the platter with the consecrated wafer. Jerome himself, half naked and with his faithful lion sleeping protectively at his feet, folds his legs beneath him on the marble floor. With bent head, open mouth and half-open eyes, he feebly extends his thin arms and bony fingers to receive his last communion.
Spear observes that the saint "is drained of all strength, his arms are lifeless, and only his lips can move, to receive the body and blood of Jesus," and he emphasizes the refinement of feeling shown in "the delicacy and compassion of the priest's gestures and face, the apprehension expressed by the men at the left, and the pathos of the Saint's longing, cavernous face" (Spear, p. 57). In this idealized portrayal of the end of life-a notable image of holy dying-Jerome transcends death through faith. In doing so, he offers an exemplary solution to the enslavement of the mind by the body that troubles most of the lustful characters in the novel.
St. Jerome has two other thematic functions. It embodies the exalted artistic aspirations of the painter Casimir Lypiatt (based on Wyndham Lewis), who wants to create, with "the masterfulness of the masters," a swirling composition that has "size and vehemence and spiritual significance," a "titanic abstraction" with "exultant consciousness" (Huxley, pp. 39, 42). Like another supreme work of art, Mozart's G minor Quartet, which Gumbril hears at a concert, the picture affirms the existence of God and makes Him visible to the pure of heart.
Since Huxley is skeptical rather than croyant, he uses Domenichino's St. Jerome in a satirical and subversive way. As Huxley contrasts the religious and secular worlds, spiritual and material existence, Eucharistic communion and physical union, Old Masters and young mistresses, the painting loses its symbolic significance and the wafer is once again debased to a five-shilling piece. The picture finally becomes a means of seduction and provides a sexual thrill to those who make love in its holy ambience. Rosie's husband, reading in another room of their flat, is not disturbed by her orgasmic cry; and during her sexual encounter, as St. Jerome goes on "solemnly communicating," the pink of her boudoir and underwear supplants the dark gravity of the painting. Afterwards, as Rosie narcissistically caresses herself beneath the sleeves of her silky kimono, "all her body was smooth and warm, was soft and secret, still more secret beneath the pink folds" that suggest her sexual organ and the triumph in the novel of body over mind (Huxley, p. 114).
Jeffrey Meyers, FRSL, Berkeley, California
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|Title Annotation:||Aldous Huxley|
|Publication:||Notes on Contemporary Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||May 1, 2006|
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