Leonardo da Vinci’s Saint Jerome Praying in the Wilderness

at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC (through October 6)
by John Haber

Saint Jerome took to extremes. As theologian and scholar, he traveled to the Holy Land to master Hebrew, translated the Hebrew Bible into Latin, churned out commentary after commentary, and defended church doctrine with warnings of hell. And then there was the sinner, shamed by his conduct among women, converted to Christianity after a vision, and living alone in the desert but for a lion and for a stone to beat his breast.

Leonardo da Vinci took to extremes, too. A prodigy and authority among painters, he invented the High Renaissance, mastered science and architecture as easily as art, polished lenses for a telescope a century before Galileo, observed everything, and charmed everyone. And then there was the stubborn recluse who left commissions unfinished, went into self-imposed exile in France, gave up painting altogether, wrote backward to hide his traces, and devoted himself to notebooks that amount to a single extended study of humanity and nature that he could never complete. He could well have identified with Jerome. His unfinished painting of the fourth-century saint, Saint Jerome Praying in the Wilderness, on loan from the Vatican, comes to the Met through October 6 as a show to itself five hundred years after his death. But which version of Jerome or Leonardo is on display?

Leonardo da Vinci’s St. Jerome Praying in the Wilderness, on loan from the Vatican Museums.
Photo by Brittainy Newman

The stuff of legend

Actually, Jerome praying in the desert is the stuff of legend — to be precise, the Golden Legend, written long after his death. Still, it builds its fancies on a core of truth. He had his vision on a trip to the Mideast, and he spent more time in the extreme climate of Antioch than in Rome. Records of his guilty feelings and the accusations against him survive in writing, and they help account for the severity of his church teachings. Probably no artist could encompass his extremes. It took two as compendious as Leonardo (if that is indeed possible), Albrecht Dürer and Caravaggio, even to try, in separate paintings and prints.

Caravaggio’s Saint Jerome Writing (aka Saint Jerome in His Study). c. 1605–1606

Others stick to the saint or the sinner, as visible a few years back at the Princeton University Art Museum. Jan van Eyck, with an assist from Petrus Christus, paints Jerome in his red robe as a cardinal and his Bible on a lectern, looking halfway bored by both. Still, artists have looked for common ground. Most bring his lion into his study and his Bible into the wilderness. They see his dedication and isolation as the grounds for his work as a church father. Like Giovanni Bellini, they may also treat the wilderness as anything but a desert — with the light, vegetation, and animal life of God’s kingdom on earth.

Not Leonardo. As always, he means to encompass everything by turning his back on nothing. Jerome crouched in the desert has never looked so gaunt or in agony, his eyes fixed on a crucifix or a vision of Jesus on the cross. One hand covers his heart to attest his devotion, while his outstretched other arm is poised to bring his stone in full force to that very spot. If there is anything in the cave mouth to his left, it cannot offer much in the way of shelter. If any of the slabs at his feet represent the Bible, which I doubt, he ignores it.

A detail of Leonardo da Vinci’s Saint Jerome Praying in the Wilderness at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Photo by Brittainy Newman

Walter Pater in the nineteenth century, in a sappy but memorable essay, described the Mona Lisa as “older than rocks among which she sits.” Not Jerome. He may be at one with the surrounding crags in his sharp bones and near toothless mouth, but his mortality is never in question. In the legend, he finds a companion in the lion after pulling a thorn from its paw. Here the lion at his feet shares his tension in the curve of its back and tail. Taken together as a near circle in depth or a pyramid in the picture plane, they are locked forever in a savage embrace.

They also belong to the Christian community even in the wilderness. Just to the right of the crucifix and a lot more recognizable, Leonardo has sketched an oddly small church — domed, because even a building for Leonardo radiates outward with organic life. Is it a glimpse through the cave onto a distant landscape? A rocky vista at upper left looks, if anything, closer. Is the sketch just a study for another work of art entirely that lands here for now because the artist can never stop inventing? Or could Jerome’s gaze take in two visions, because salvation can come only from the death of a god and the true church?

Not that Leonardo seems to have cared much for narrative structure and hidden symbols. He could never follow a set program like Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. Like Jerome, he was his own authority. His religion lies in nature, with the artist as observer, synthesizer, and interpreter. And that raises a looming question: how should one understand an unfinished painting?

Detail: Jerome holds a rock in his extended right hand.
Detail: a robe, a foot, a lion’s silhouette


Stages of unfinish

Leonardo’s abandoned work feeds his reputation as a genius — a painter of spontaneous insight responsible to no one. Of course, that, too, is the stuff of legend, and it raises more questions. Why did he leave Jerome unfinished? He might have lost faith in its progress, although he returned to it over time and held onto it until his death. He might have lost interest in religious scenes entirely, to focus on Renaissance portraits like the Mona Lisa in 1503. Not only is the Salvator Mundi that went for gazillions last year just plain awful, but by then he was delegating such subjects to his workshop.

Why, for that matter, did patrons put up with it? They might have fallen for his charm and talent. Even peeling off the wall soon after its completion, his Last Supper had become a school for painters. He might also have had protection from powerful men, like the Medici family in Florence. Francis I in France named him court painter but may have been just as happy with his skills as a diplomat and designer of fortifications. Oh, Leonardo added once in seeking work, he was also a painter.

Saint Jerome came to the Met before, in 2003, in a show Leonardo da Vinci: Master Draftsman, which makes sense. For him and others of his time, painting had its basis in proper drawing and design, or designo. That is not, though, the whole story. The painting is a virtual compendium of his working methods. Jerome’s anatomy boils down to drawing, but Leonardo shades the rock face and applies color to the distant landscape, using not just a brush but also his fingers. His prints and the painting’s layers are still visible under a microscope or in ultraviolet light.

Unique to Leonardo, he worked on all of these at the same time, rather than completing each stage in turn as preparation for the next. Others, like Michelangelo or Tintoretto, drew single figures on paper in detail or in motion — which they could then fit into a predetermined composition. Others prepared a cartoon, or full-scale drawing of the composition, for transfer to canvas or a panel. Who else would have used the panel itself as a ground for so much drawing? Who else would have worked out so much shading before even a touch of color? Who else, too, would have let a composition take on a life of its own?

Detail: “From anatomy to fantastic architecture,” a sketch gains flesh.
Photo by Brittainy Newman

Each for him had a purpose, again related to close observation. He probably began the painting in 1483 after moving to Milan, and not long after another unfinished painting, an Adoration of the Magi. Its drawing extends from anatomy to fantastic architecture, and its crouched admirers have a pose close to Jerome’s. (He began his Madonna of the Rocks the same year.) Shading adds mass and depth, while color reflects Leonardo’s interest in how refracted light leaves distant objects softer and bluer. Could he have left the painting unfinished because for him each technique had already served its purpose?

Or was he just unable to face his closeness to Jerome, as authority or in exile? He seems to have brought the greatest finish to what he cared about the least. The Met brings the viewer close as well — amid black curtains, as if one has entered Jerome’s cave. (The Lehman wing slips in a handful of other High Renaissance paintings from the Met’s collection as well, including two by Raphael.) For Leonardo, beauty was everywhere and everything, but only to the extent that it brought out divine favor or an aristocratic bearing. A learned artist could still set aside the Bible to observe nature’s closeness to terror.


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