Leonardo da Vinci, St. Jerome in the Wilderness (c. 1480)

Leonardo da Vinci, St. Jerome in the Wilderness (c. 1480). Tempera and oil on walnut panel (41 in × 30 in). Vatican Museums, Rome.

As is mentioned in my brief blurb about myself on the right side of the page, I spent the entirety of my 3rd year of university studying abroad in Florence, Italy. While I was there I was able to work with Dr. Rab Hatfield and Dr. Jonathan K. Nelson at the Syracuse University in Florence Center. While working with Professor Hatfield, I undertook research on a few works by Leonard da Vinci and I would like to share one of my shorter essays (footnotes excluded for brevity's sake) which I created to present to my seminar class. This presentation centered on Leondardo da Vinci's early unfinished work St. Jerome in the Wilderness and I hope you will enjoy! I know this post is a bit longer than most but after quite a few news stories that have been breaking, it might be good to get some more scholarly posts in now and then. This work is really wonderful and I find it one of the Renaissance master's best emotive works.

St. Jerome in the Wilderness by Leonardo da Vinci
Essay Presented by Lydia Melamed Johnson
15 October, 2008 Florence, Italy

Long before the Last Supper or the Mona Lisa would make him famous for his subtle but powerful facial expression and beautifully correct anatomical studies of the human form, Leonardo da Vinci was depicting individuals suffused with heart-wrenching emotion.

A true example and indication of who Leonardo was to become can be seen in one of his earliest attributed works, the St. Jerome in the Wilderness that now hangs in the Vatican Picture Gallery. Begun around 1480, and never finished, this work of oil and tempera on panel is completed only to the point of monochrome under-painting and as such enables the viewer see the process Leonardo was working through on his way to his more complete masterpieces. This work has a varied provenance, and through its journey from Leonardo’s hand to its current place in the Vatican collection the work has endured large amounts of damage and unimpressive restorations. Its earliest known location was actually in the Vatican collections though how it got there or why it did not remain is unknown.
The next reference to the St. Jerome is found in the will of the Swiss-born British Royal Academician Angelica Kauffman in the year 1807, where it was listed as an unfinished work done by Leonardo da Vinci. From this point on it was, and still is, attributed to the artist without any challenges, as the style is most definitely Leonardo’s, even though there is no supporting documentation, sketches or provenance that goes back to Leonardo’s time. After its mention in Kauffman’s will it once again was lost until around 1820 when the French Cardinal Fesch, an uncle to the Emperor Napoleon, found a portion of the work containing the landscape, lion and the bottom part of the saint’s body being used as the doors to a cabinet in a second-hand shop in Rome. The Cardinal then searched for the missing portion containing the head and located it in the workshop of a cobbler, where it had a place of honor as a tabletop. The Cardinal, having rejoined the two parts, had it restored and the unskilled job of the restoration is very evident in the work.

Some years later, in 1845, Pope Pius IV bought the painting from the Cardinal’s heirs for, it is estimated by Angela Ottino della Chiesa in the Complete Paintings of Leonardo, 2,500 francs for his collection, and it is there in the Vatican’s Museum that it hangs today. For all the picture has been through, the fact that it retains much of its original power and beauty is a testament to Leonardo’s early skill. It is because of his advanced level of draughtsmanship and his extensive studies and sketches of humans, animals, and nature that Leonardo is able to carefully emphasize the most important characteristics of a penitent St. Jerome, and use the saint’s established iconography to highlight his implications. Leonardo depicts the saint in the wilderness, or desert, where he was said to have lived for many years in penitence as a hermit between stints of living in various parts of Europe. The saint, canonized for his translation the Bible from Hebrew to Latin that came to be known as the Vulgate, as well as many other religious writings, is one of the Four Western Fathers, or Doctors, of the Catholic Church along with the other literary saints of St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, and St. Gregory the Great. Many artists before and after Leonardo have shown Jerome in the wilderness, but another common mode of presentation is to place the saint in his study in the midst of his great translations, often clothed in Cardinal red as there were many who believed him to have been a cardinal at one time because of his close work with Pope Damascus. In discussing this work it is important to highlight the changes Leonardo makes to the conventional depiction of St. Jerome.

The saint is placed in the center of the work without a distracting desk, book or otherwise, with the core of his body creating the dividing line between the receding landscape and the action that takes place in the foreground. Jerome sits, not in constrained contemplation, but rather he strains forward with his emaciated chest as his left arm swings behind him in preparation of his self-flagellation performed with the rock clenched in his fist. Here is a man struggling to tame his internal desires and inflicting pain upon his own flesh in an attempt to rid his body of its impure urges that go against the doctrine he worships. His body already shows the effects these punishments have taken, especially in the area of his chest where there is a dark spot, probably the beginning of a large bruise from his repeated beatings. Also known to have imposed severe dietary restrictions on himself, the saint’s bony and gaunt flesh is one more indication of his piety and devotion to his vocation. St. Jerome gives the viewer an acute sense of the humanity underneath the holiness of a saintly individual. To accentuate the anguish of the moment, the lion in the foreground, Jerome’s most common attribute, opens his mouth as if to roar in response to what is occurring before him.

This bestial response to Jerome’s self-inflicted punishment underscores the religious piety of the moment with a more animalistic response, the type that would that tempt Jerome to fall from grace and give in to more base urges such as rage or sexual desire. This idea is accentuated by the story of Jerome’s acquisition of the lion. In the tale, an injured lion came across Jerome in the desert, and Jerome aided the animal by removing a thorn it had in its paw. Once the beast was freed from pain it became the constant companion of Jerome and refused to leave his side. As such, the lion goes from a rage and hunger motivated creature, to a domesticated pet shown lying by his keeper’s side. This story symbolizes the relationship between the wounded, or impious, and the ability of the church, symbolized here by Jerome, to heal and cure and bring beings into its fold through a type religious healing such as conversion.
Though it is hard to make out in most reproductions of this work, St. Jerome is turning his head away from the lion and his animalistic urges and actively gazing at an image of a crucifix, and a façade of a church, etched onto the rock wall to his left.

Jerome concentrates on the crucifix as he punishes his own body, aligning his pain with Christ’s in an attempt to beat out the parts of himself that do run parallel to the Savior’s doctrine. With this in mind the saint is looking ahead to years of a more peaceful existence once the trails of his penance are complete, a sort of paradise on Earth that can only be achieved through these agonized moments, a paradise where he is closer to Christ through his parallel trials. The work is a way to interpret and examine the path of Christianity on the way to eternal salvation and the goals of the devout Catholic saint.

Leonardo’s portrayal of Saint Jerome in the wilderness is at once arrestingly beautiful and disturbing in the way that only Leonardo could attain without moving into the realm of the unattractive or the grotesque. The landscape here, as with so much of Leonardo’s work, is not created only for the beauty of itself but rather also to use its subtle undertones to outline certain characteristics of the individual depicted. The beginnings of the landscape that would have surrounded Jerome are stark and unforgiving, characteristics similar to the saint’s opinion of temptation and his own path to Christian purity and piety. In this vein, Leonardo makes the landscape not completely without hope. Just as Jerome looks forward to the future, so too does the faint green coloring help to move the work out of complete desolation. Though this does indicate that suffering is not without end, the pain, both physical and emotional, shown in the figure of Jerome is the centerpiece of the work and as such must be appreciated for its brutally honest depiction of agony. However, as the painting is far from completed, these ideas on the color of the landscape are purely speculation based on the evidence before us, as we cannot know what Leonardo intended for the final product.

Much more obvious however is the facial expression of the saint. The pain etched on Jerome’s face gives indication to the amount of suffering the saint is enduring in his quest for penance and the amount of willpower he is exerting in order to resist temptation. Jerome’s facial expression is a foreshadowing of what was to come in Leonardo’s career, and strong likenesses of this Jerome in the Wilderness can be found both in the unfinished Adoration of the Magi, and even in Leonardo’s famous Last Supper in the expression and pose of St. Phillip. As Jerome strains forward with his left hand over his breast as if anticipating the blow of the rock, so too does St. Phillip seem to move toward the actions and reactions surrounding Christ’s pronouncement of the imminent betrayal of one of these Apostles. While this similarity is slight but apparent, the upturned gaze and gaunt features of one individual present in the Adoration of the Magi, from around 1481-1482, could be St. Jerome himself the similarity is so blatant.

From the closely shorn hair, the sunken eye sockets, and gaping mouth this old man seems to be St. Jerome’s close relative or even twin. However, unlike the penitent saint, this figure turns the agonized expression of the saint into one of confusion and disbelief. Here Leonardo uses the subtle change of angle and gaze to move away from physical pain into mental confusion and the pain that comes from opening one’s eyes to new things after so long under one belief. While both are undergoing a type of transformation, only St. Jerome does so with an alertness that shines through his eyes, as an individual not only physically there, but mentally understanding this internal transformation.

Because this picture is not completed, and maybe because of its sorted history, many of the writers on Leonardo do not give it the credit nor the time it truly deserves. Though each mention it, most do so only briefly to compare it to the later Adoration of the Magi, whose commission is often thought to be the reason the St. Jerome was left incomplete. Kenneth Clark is guilty of over looking the importance of this work, and I found myself disappointed in him as he gives the work less than a full page, and spends the entirety focusing on the provenance of the work and briefly mentioning that it displays Leonardo’s transformation between two major works. While the provenance of the work is indeed interesting, I would rather have learned Clark’s opinion about the compositional aspects of the work, and what makes the image so much more emotionally tense than other pictures of St. Jerome. As such I found that Frank Zollner, and Pietro Marani felt similarly to how I do, and both gave reasonable amounts of time and analysis of the work in their respective works, Leonardo da Vinci, and Leonardo da Vinci: the Complete Paintings. Though Clark mentions that portions of the work are uncharacteristic of the artist, he leaves very little room for real critique of his writing on the picture. As such I must say that I find fault with Clark in his dismissal of what seems to me to be one of Leonardo’s most moving works. While he might not find it as pleasing as the Virgin of the Rocks, and true it has neither the charm nor the subtlety of that masterpiece, he does the St. Jerome and Leonardo himself a great disservice by not giving it the moment it deserves as a precursor to two, and probably more, of Leonardo’s most important works. I say probably, because this work was begun and left unfinished, before Leonardo began his extensive studies into the anatomy of the human body. This picture shows Leonardo’s interest in the body derived first not in the scientific realm, but rather the artistic one, and while Jerome does not yet have the anatomical correctness of some of Leonardo’s later figures he was surely an inspiration to Leonardo in his later studies.

1 comment:

  1. thank you, would of like some more sourceing so I could quote from this in my paper, I will give all credit to the writer of course