Leonardo da Vinci’s “Saint Jerome Praying in the Wilderness” (begun c.1483) is a picture at war with itself. Famously unfinished, it has prompted centuries of speculation about why it never progressed beyond the umber underpainting, with guesses ranging from the loss of a patron to the artist’s insatiable impulse to rethink, revise, and reassess. But what if Leonardo stopped because there was no place else to go?
Brought to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art from the Vatican Museums by the indispensable curator Carmen C. Bambach to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death, the painting has been awarded a rare solo-object exhibition, spotlit in the darkness of a chapel-like setting, with benches on either side.
(Bambach, the mastermind behind the Met’s once-in-a-lifetime Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer (November 13, 2017-February 12, 2018) is also the author of the new four-volume study, Leonardo da Vinci Rediscovered, from Yale University Press.)
The environment recalls the ritual settings of the Roman Catholic Church — the Eucharistic Adoration in particular — though Bambach, in her remarks at the press preview, likens the arrangement to the customs attached to artists’ funerals during the Renaissance, which often featured displays of their work, with an emphasis on sacred imagery. The elegiac air is augmented by the sound bleed from Ragnar Kjartansson’s endless video loop, Death Is Elsewhere (2019), installed on the other side of the wall in the court of the Robert Lehman Wing — a happy, or unhappy, convergence, depending on your point of view.
Saint Jerome, in a nutshell, was a 4th-century Roman whose most notable achievement was the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Latin. He was also a sharp-tongued gadfly who didn’t suffer fools gladly and made enemies easily. Like his friend and rival Augustine of Hippo, he led a wayward youth and converted to Christianity in early adulthood. He later became a monk and priest, as well as a hermit and an ascetic, fleeing the machinations of Rome, where he was denounced for sexual impropriety with a female follower, for the Syrian desert near Antioch, where he practiced penance and self-mortification.
This is where we find him in Leonardo’s portrayal, which the artist started when he was 31, seven years after he was accused of sodomy — charges that were later dismissed through the intervention of the Medici. While “Saint Jerome” was a commissioned work, the personal meanings that the subject may have held for Leonardo are compelling.
A gay polymath bastard, born out of wedlock to Piero da Vinci, a notary, and a peasant woman known only as Caterina, and raised with no formal schooling, Leonardo would have found a deep and immediate connection to Jerome’s ostracism at the hands of the envious and the hypocritical. That the hermit is caught in the act of beating his chest with a fist-sized stone makes us wonder whether the picture itself might be a form of penance for the painter’s guilty pleasures.
As Antonio Forcellino writes in his recent book, Leonardo: A Restless Genius (2016, translated by Lucinda Byatt, 2018):
The painting can be dated to the time of Leonardo’s denunciation for sodomy, which almost certainly elicited from his father calls for the moderation, if not mortification, of his sexual impulses. It is legitimate to wonder whether to some extent Leonardo identified with Saint Jerome’s attempt to cool his own sexual desires and whether, in short, the painting is the outcome of the artist’s identification with the penitent saint, in flight from the temptations of the flesh.
Forcellino renders a swift verdict — “This seems unlikely” — asserting that the saint is portrayed “like […] a plant: perfect, rigorous, and detached,” while the lion at Jerome’s feet “explodes” with sensuality, “which in Leonardo’s life and art is the true driver of his creativity […].”
Again, we must remember that the artwork was a commission, and so we should measure Leonardo’s emotional investment in the imagery with skepticism. But my reading of the painting is very different from Forcellino’s. For one, Jerome’s face is a deeply etched study of despair, with his eyes trained on the barely legible crucifix in the upper right corner (which I was able to discern only after Bambach pointed it out), his brow furrowed, his mouth parted in prayer or abasement. The composition may be perfect and rigorous, but the expression is hardly detached.
It is also worth noting that of all of the artist’s sacred paintings, “Saint Jerome” is the only one that doesn’t depict a member of the extended Holy Family: Jesus, Mary, Saint Anne, and/or John the Baptist. For Jerome to be such an iconographic outlier can only prompt us to wonder further about the significance that the desert monk might have held for the young artist.
And, taking a cue from Forcellino, we might also wonder whether the emotional turbulence that the painting represents was the cause of his inability to finish it. At the risk of insupportable speculation, could the conflict between the artist’s desires and the demands of religion and society, embodied by the stone in Jerome’s hand, have resulted in artistic paralysis?
Or, as proposed above, did he stop because the painting’s formal extremities couldn’t be resolved within the idiom of his time? Even if this conjecture doesn’t remotely approach the truth, the aesthetic consequences of these broken boundaries appear perfectly legible and complete to us today.
Forcellino suggests that Leonardo’s stoppage might have had something to do with reaching an endpoint, describing the painting as “a superb sketch: a sketch so perfect that it discouraged any attempt to complete it.”
But what is so fascinating about “Saint Jerome” is that it is wildly imperfect — an agglomeration of at least five conflicting styles whose visible seams electrify the entire stitched-together surface.
(And the stitching metaphor can be taken literally: in circumstances that remain murky, the painting’s walnut panel was at one time sawn apart so that the saint’s head could be sold separately, attesting to the deep historical roots of the rapacity of the marketplace.)
The landscape in the upper left-hand corner, the only part of the painting that includes a color other than umber or sienna, is a J.M.W. Turner, pure and simple — a haze of pigment lashed by a few quick, calligraphic strokes defining mountains rising skyward. The color, to my eye, looks like a simple mixture of terre verte and white lead that Leonardo spread over the sienna ground (which emerges as a soft pink through the sfumato scrim) with his fingers. (A wall panel directs you to the section where you can spot the artist’s fingerprints.)
The delicacy of the rendering in the upper left quadrant has nothing to do stylistically with the sharply cut, acid-brown abstraction of the rock formations behind the saint, or with the anatomical exactitude of his shoulders and torso, which seem to be lacking an epidermis — more Jean-Antoine Houdon’s “L’Écorché” (“Flayed Man, 1767) than Leonardo’s own “Vitruvian Man” (c.1490).
And then there’s the outstretched arm — an unadorned contour drawing that contrasts so harshly with the blackish browns of the backdrop that it behaves like an independent element of the composition, conceptually detached from the saint’s body and so isolated against the dark field that your eye would be stuck on it if not for the bright patch of ground on the painting’s opposite side.
The self-mortifying gesture is no elbow-to-chest tap, but the full-shoulder swing of an arm pulled so far back that it is almost cut off by the panel’s left edge. The impending blow, which seems perfectly capable of cracking the saint’s sternum, led Forcellino to consider the painting “among the most violent images of the Renaissance.”
By leaving the arm as a contour drawing, Leonardo has simultaneously emphasized and deemphasized it: the purity of its form turns it into the most important part of the painting, while its blankness prevents the ferocity of its implied arc from breaking the picture plane.
The action of the arm is amplified by the saint’s kneeling left leg, which seems to project his body forward, a far more dynamic pose than the seated position that a quick reading might suggest (the robe falling from his left shoulder and draped over his elbow seems to take the shape of a leg in repose, creating a solidity and symmetry that is undercut by the actual leg as it zags backward like a cocked trigger).
The cutout-looking lion at the saint’s feet and the temple or church, which could be the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, at the bottom of the light patch on the right, are also rendered as drawings. But the lion’s body is a darker tint than the arm, and it is more embellished, with its face and mane described through yet another approach, in careful daubs of what could be a wash of terre verte or diluted ink, while the temple is dashed off with restless sepia strokes, a quick architectural sketch.
The separate sections of the composition — the misty landscape, the modeled head and torso, the bright silhouette of the arm, the darker silhouette of the lion, and the abstracted swathes of dark and light — chafe against each other abrasively and vibrantly: Jerome’s spiritual struggle mirrored in Leonardo’s aesthetic struggle.
The inner conflict laid bare in “Saint Jerome Praying in the Wilderness” can be seen as the engine that animates Leonardo’s painting practice, which over the course of his career swung like a pendulum between porcelain clarity and atmospheric mystery. (A conflict notably absent from the frontal, stolid “Salvator Mundi,” c.1500, which Bambach has attributed to Leonardo’s follower Giovanni Boltraffio, with only touches by the master.)
The irresolution of “Saint Jerome” is precisely what speaks to us with such stunning freshness. Its sparkling contemporaneity militates against the ornate frame surrounding it and the encroaching shadows beckoning it into the past. It is another of Leonardo’s flying machines, taking to the air.
Leonardo da Vinci’s Saint Jerome continues at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through October 6. The exhibition is organized Dr. Carmen C. Bambach, Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints, with the collaboration of the Vatican Museums and the support of its director, Dr. Barbara Jatta.