To commemorate the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s passing, the Vatican Museums have loaned one of the artist’s greatest paintings to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Saint Jerome Praying in the Wilderness is on view in a special exhibition through Oct. 6. The design of the exhibition, with Leonardo’s painting shown by itself in a darkened, small gallery, is meant to mimic the kinds of memorials often staged for great artists during the Renaissance. It also heightens the impact of the masterpiece which is full of passion and pathos, emotion and spirituality.
“What seemed important was to have a religious painting by Leonardo that also communicated intense spirituality, and for me that was Saint Jerome,” said curator Carmen C. Bambach, who is regarded by many as the preeminent expert on the artist.
Her newly released four-volume book Leonardo da Vinci Rediscovered (Yale University Press, 2019) reflects 24 years of research.
“I would say it’s the most intense, spiritually charged painting by Leonardo,” Bambach explained. “This painting speaks to the private, devoted viewer, and communicates such an intense psychological state in the main figure, St. Jerome, that it made a lot of sense to me to display it as one work of art, with no text around it, no other works, so that we could create this sacred, chapel-like setting.”
The painting is unfinished, despite the fact that Leonardo worked on it for more than 30 years. He kept it with him from the time he started it about 1482–1483 until he died, suggesting how meaningful it was to him.
The artist portrays St. Jerome in his late life, as an ascetic, having left behind the library where he worked for years to translate the Bible from Greek to the Latin Vulgate. The penitent saint kneels near a cave. His companion, a lion who befriended him when the saint pulled a thorn from his paw, sits at his feet. St. Jerome’s gaunt face is turned toward an opening through which he sees a church in the distance, along with a crucifix, viewed from the side.
“He is very much preoccupied by the vision that he has of the crucifix. … The painting represents the moment when St. Jerome is about to beat his breast with a rock or has just beaten it with a rock, so there’s a sense of action in the middle of happening,” Bambach said.
The moment is frozen as St. Jerome’s arm is stretched mid-air. One feels his anguish and passion. It was a radical departure from the way saints had been portrayed before: standing straight, mostly without emotional expression.
“Leonardo really means us to empathize. He felt that we, the viewer, should feel as intense emotion as the subject of the painting. He is constantly thinking about the reaction of the viewer and what the subject of the painting is about to communicate. So, there is this very dynamic interaction between the act of viewing and the subject of the painting, and that is very revolutionary,” Bambach said.
“There really aren’t artists before Leonardo who are doing that. Leonardo also suppresses all the attributes that many painters of St. Jerome praying in the wilderness included, like the cardinal’s hat, because there were no cardinals at the time of St. Jerome. Leonardo drops out all the incongruous symbols in order for us to concentrate with maximum attention.”
St. Jerome’s spirituality
St. Jerome (347–420) was a scholar and a doctor of the Catholic Church. He was born in Dalmatia, in what’s now Croatia, and was baptized in Rome when he was close to 20 years of age. His life was long and complex, filled with study, correspondences with popes and other saints, and travel. Eventually, he adopted a solitary hermit’s life in a cave near Bethlehem, according to the Golden Legend, an early compilation of biographies of saints.
The one element typically seen in paintings of St. Jerome that Leonardo kept was the lion, and though it’s painted with an artist’s delight in line and form, it serves a serious purpose.
“The face of the lion is growling and there is that ferocity of the lion’s expression and the intensity of the praying St. Jerome’s face,” Bambach explained. “That contrast of physiognomy is also something Leonardo explored as a narrative device. Seeing the contrast accentuates the spirituality of St. Jerome — that sort of serenity at the same time as the intense sense of reverie and being possessed by this vision. It’s human expression versus animal expression. These are all things that Leonardo thought about pretty intensely.”
Bambach hopes viewers will find their own personal, emotional, and spiritual responses to Leonardo’s Saint Jerome, as well as a sense of what great art can impart.
“When we are surrounded by so much destruction and so much that is negative in our world and culture and society, I think that it’s important to remember that an artist who lived half a millennia ago, through this particular painting, can communicate something that is larger than any of us.”
IF YOU GO:
Saint Jerome Praying in the Wilderness exhibition now through Oct. 6 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Visit MetMuseum.org to learn more.