Leonardo da Vinci’s St. Jerome Praying in the Wilderness Captivates at The Met

Words by Mary Gregory Photos by Adel Gorgy

Standing before Leonardo da Vinci’s “Saint Jerome Praying in the Wilderness” is an extraordinary experience, filled with rewarding revelations. My first impression was that it’s smaller than expected. That much monumental power wouldn’t seem to be able to fit in a panel painting about the size of a hallway mirror. But then, it’s Leonardo da Vinci’s creation; his doodles can rob one of words. On loan from the Vatican Museums in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death, “St. Jerome” will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through October 6th. Don’t miss it. 

Behind a wall in the Lehman wing, by itself in a darkened alcove, spotlighted and mesmerizing, it’s the master’s last great painting. He worked on it intermittently for some 36 years. Despite that, it’s unfinished. Leonardo’s peripatetic mind, endless curiosity, and varying patronage have historically been factored into the many works he left incomplete. In its finished/unfinished state, with glimpses of under drawing, blocked out empty shapes, and highly refined areas that display the master’s knowledge of both painting and anatomy, Leonardo’s penitent “St. Jerome” is an absolute marvel of expressiveness and emotion. 

A detail of Leonardo da Vinci’s “St. Jerome Praying in the Wilderness” shows the passionate intensity captured by the artist.

Curator Dr. Carmen C. Bambach designed a chapel-like space to mimic commemorations for great painters during the Renaissance and for maximal visual impact. “Because the painting is so much about contemplation and that intensity, it was important for the viewer to feel absorbed in this painting. There is so much to learn from the painting, the more one actually looks at it. Especially because it’s unfinished, there is a sense that you are really looking at the mind of the artist unfolding,” she said. “The painting is in different states of finish, so we also get to see a little bit of the undisciplined Leonardo. He was picking and choosing what he wanted to concentrate on, and he kept the painting with him. It was never given to the patron… so this painting must have had a very private meaning to Leonardo.”

St. Jerome was an ascetic, traveler, scholar, and writer. Legend has it that he was befriended by a lion from whose paw he extracted a thorn. He’s often depicted in a comfortable library, translating the Bible from Greek to Latin, as he and his leonine companion relax on tufted pillows. Leonardo, instead, chooses a moment of pure passion to illustrate. The eyes of his Jerome are what connect immediately with viewers, filled with both understanding and searching. They express torment, but not resentment. The saint submits painfully, one feels, but willingly. He’s toothless, gaunt, all sinew and bones, topped by a smooth head and beseeching, accepting, knowing eyes. One feels, but can’t imagine, his deep conversation with God. 

Leonardo da Vinci depicts the transcendent state of the praying saint.

“Leonardo really means us to empathize with the subject that is being portrayed,” notes Bambach, one of the world’s top authorities on the artist’s life and work. “He felt that we, the viewers, should feel as intense emotion as the subject the painting portrays. He’s constantly thinking about the reaction of the viewer…so there is this really very dynamic interaction between the act of viewing and the subject of the painting and that is very revolutionary. There really aren’t artist before Leonardo who are doing that.” 

A bit of counterbalance to the intensity of the saint is the great sweeping curve of the lion’s tail that takes up much of the foreground of the panel. One feels the artist included it just for his own visual delight. 

“That’s really very correct,” says Bambach. “What is really interesting about that lion which is beautiful as a form with those S curves that are really quite extraordinary, is that the lion is seen from the back…As a viewer looking into the painting, it connects the space of the viewer with that of St. Jerome. And then there is of course a playfulness of all those beautiful S curves and that is also part of Leonardo’s theory of painting. Painting is meant to delight as well as to move.”

Bambach’s research reveals that Leonardo’s fingerprints can be seen in the landscape in the upper left corner.

Stories within stories are told in the painting, which has its own tales and mysteries. Though it’s only one of a handful of paintings by Leonardo whose authenticity has never been questioned, it disappeared from history for hundreds of years. It once belonged to the Swiss artist, Angelica Kauffman, appearing in her will in the early 1800s, and was lost again and later discovered and purchased for the Vatican Museums by Napoleon’s uncle, Cardinal Joseph Fesch. He found it in two separate pieces – one in a Roman antiques shop, and the other at a shoemaker’s where it had been fashioned into the cover of a stool. The panel, itself, seems to have had as complicated and wandering an existence as the saint it depicts.

The unfinished state of Leonardo da Vinci’s “St. Jerome Praying in the Wilderness” allows glimpses into the artist’s process, thoughts and choices.

Leonardo da Vinci’s “St. Jerome” is a work that has the power to communicate, to affect and even alter the viewer, which is a rare thing. It’s a painting worth journeying to see, especially while it’s in New York. “I think the power of the painting is because of that psychological intensity. Although of course it was conceived as a religious painting within the Christian tradition…I feel it has a power to move a secular and religious person alike. Art, in our culture especially, has become almost like the alternative to spirituality,” said Bambach. “Works of art that are transcendental, they communicate beyond time.”

Photos by Adel Gorgy

Leonardo da Vinci’s “St. Jerome Praying in the Wilderness”
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Through October 6, 2019

About Mary Gregory Adel Gorgy (31 Articles)
Mary Gregory is an award-winning art critic and journalist whose work with museums, galleries, and auction houses led her to writing about art for publications like Newsday, Long Island Pulse, Afterimage, Art Week, Our Town, and the Chelsea News. A member of the International Association of Art Critics, she has degrees in both English and art history, and her fiction has been anthologized by the Georgia Museum of Art. ------------------Adel Gorgy's photojournalist work, which focuses specifically on art news and exhibitions, has been widely published in New York area magazines, newspapers and journals both online and in print. His fine art photography has been seen around the world in solo and group exhibitions in museums and galleries.