Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Saint Jerome in a woman's dress
  • Creator: Herman, Jean, and Paul de Limbourg, painters
  • Description:

    This image comes from the Belles Heures de Jean de France, duke of Berry, one of the most luxuriously illuminated manuscripts of the fifteenth century. The Belles Heures was created by the Limbourg brothers – Herman, Paul, and Jean – and it contains a remarkable series of narrative pictorial cycles devoted to saints for whom the patron, Jean, Duke of Berry, had a particular affinity. The scene that we see here is rarely depicted; it features an episode from the life of Saint Jerome in which he was tricked into wearing a woman’s dress to Matins, the night choir office. The monks pranked Jerome as retribution for his criticisms of their lascivious behavior. As a strict proponent of discipline within the monastic community, Jerome was not amused by this prank, and according to the Golden Legend, it was this incident that drove him from Rome forever.

    The architecture helps distinguish the two parts of this story. To the right, Jerome lies sleeping beneath a vaulted chamber while a monk, his face hidden by a cowl and clothing blending in with Jerome’s blanket, sneaks into his room for the sake of planting a blue dress beside the bed. Waking drowsily for Matins, the preoccupied Jerome dons the dress instead of his habit. In the left foreground, Jerome wanders into church carrying a lantern, which indicates that he dressed in the darkness and therefore is oblivious to his ridiculous outfit. Behind him in the choir stall, two monks stare intently at their colleague and appear to be gossiping about Jerome’s bizarre behavior.

    Several artistic features help to highlight Jerome’s cross-dressing. Jerome’s long brown beard, a symbol of wisdom that contrasts starkly with the smooth chins of the other monks, is prominent throughout the cycle. However, the beard also functions to highlight his embodied maleness. The incongruity of placing a bearded male in a female outfit is further underscored by the use of color. The bright blue fabric of the dress makes it stand out vividly against the drab architecture and the austere brown habits. Furthermore, its color is virtually identical to that of a dress worn by one of the dancing girls who tempts Jerome on another page of the manuscript.

    In the medieval period, cross-dressing had homosexual connotations. Therefore, it can be argued that Jerome’s decision to flee the monastery stems from the shame of being associated with homosexual desire. But also, his flight could have been motivated by fear for his reputation and of being slandered as a hypocrite. Jerome was a militant proponent of virginity, but he also had many female friends who were virgins or widows, the two types of women whom he believed were worthy of being spiritual companions, rather than sexual objects. However, Jerome’s willingness to consort with women was perceived by some as a subterfuge to gain sexual access to these women. Therefore, his unintentional cross-dressing could be understood as a confirmation of their perception of him as sly, deviant, and indulgent in the fleshly vices that he publicly condemned.

  • Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Rights: Open Access for Scholarly Content per the Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Subject (See Also): Belles Heures de Duc de Berry Cross Dressing Gender Homosexuality Jacob of Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa- Legenda Aurea Jean, Duke of Berry Jerome, Theologian and Saint Limbourg Brothers
  • Geographic Area: France
  • Century: 15
  • Date: 1405-1408 or 1409
  • Related Work: Belles Heures de Jean de France, duc de Berry. The Story of Saint Jerome. Saint Jerome Tempted by Dancing Girls, Folio 186r. http://blog.metmuseum.org/artofillumination/manuscript-pages/folio-186r/ See all pages of the Belles Heures manuscript (Click on Additional Images 176):http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/470306?rpp=30&pg=1&ft=belles%2Bheures&pos=1&imgno=4&tabname=label#
  • Current Location: New York City, Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Original Location: Probably Paris, France
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Vellum (parchment); Tempera; Gold; Ink
  • Donor: Layman; Jean, Duke of Berry
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 23.8/17/
  • Inscription: Mortuo autem Liberio papa, Jeronimus dignus summo sacerdocio ab omnibus acclamatur sed derisus turpiter a quibusdam, vestem muliebrem pro sua induit et ad matutinum derisus ab eis tante insanie, locum dedit. [Following the death of Pope Liberius, Jerome was considered by all to be worthy of the highest priesthood, but was mocked shamefully by certain people, when he put on women's clothes instead of his own, and was derided by them at Matins to such madness that he fled the place.] Source of the text and translation: Husband, Timothy. The Art of Illumination: The Limbourg Brothers and the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008, p. 220.
  • Related Resources: Bullough, Vern L., and Bonnie Bullough. Cross Dressing, Sex, and Gender. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993. Pages 50-51;
    Husband, Timothy. The Art of Illumination: The Limbourg Brothers and the Belles Heures of Jean De France, Duc De Berry. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008. Pages 220-23;
    Mills, Robert. "Introduction: Jerome in a Dress." In Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages. University of Chicago Press, 2015. Pages 1-24.