Leonardo da Vinci's Saint Jerome
On ViewThe Metropolitan Museum of Art
July 15 – October 6, 2019
The picture is alone in the dark, in an alcove within the Lehman wing, deliberately chapel-like. It faces a short length of bench, like a pew, and a sluggish stream of visitors paying their devotions with raised cell phones.
The panel is more than precious; it is a relic, not of the saint, but the artist. The installation presumes that we will understand it to be a masterpiece, one of only six securely attributed to Leonardo’s hand. An intended altarpiece, it was commissioned by an unknown private patron—who never received it—the artist carried it with him to his death. But even knowing all that, one’s first thought might be what is it? A fair question.
One notices immediately that the thing is not really a painting, not even a picture, in any whole and continuous sense. At first impression it might seem a nearly abstract collision of jagged interlocking patches of stark dark and light, which only on closer view are legible as desert floor, rock outcrops, distant sea and mountains, old man and lion. When we come close enough to find threads of overdrawing on the unpainted areas and pick out individual stones in the bituminous umber, we are no longer aware of the picture as a whole. Close up, our gaze crawls across the surface patch by patch, visiting them each like so many islands in an archipelago, identifying their contents one at a time and assembling the picture in our head. Even the central figure is half obscured and half evident. The old man’s crouching body emerges from shadow, his entire right arm and left hand untouched gesso ground, empty as an untouched coloring book, but the intervening shoulders, neck and head are a miracle of patient searching modeling more dimensional, more full, and evidently real than ordinary sight. In its hodge-podge way the picture focuses at this summit of the Saint’s torso, pulling his knotty shoulders from the darkness, setting his neck like a toppling column from uncomfortably deep inside his body, mounting the bony head and turning his imploring gaze outward to the right, open-mouthed, gasping, toward what? To whom? To perhaps the most under-indicated item in the whole ensemble: a crucifix of only a few wisped lines, hung as if on a nail driven in the right hand edge of the frame, face to Jerome, back to us.
One senses an unfinished business between the subject and the artist. He certainly did not make, and perhaps could not pursue an ordinary methodical effort to deliver the image to anyone, even himself. What craftsman would have performed the work this way? Each patch treated separately, probably at different occasions, in widely varying degrees of “finish,” a concept the picture frustrates and defies. But, if the job was only a pretext, and the panel a swimming petri dish of the artist’s ensuing examination of everything: life, art, old men, beasts, anatomy, geology real and imagined, architecture real and imagined, atmosphere, the appearance of things at great distance, light itself, shadow, even the lives of the saints, all pursued in his own time to his own purposes, indifferent to anything and anyone else, communicating by default rather than intention—then this panel is a fair trace of the artist’s mind and hand, a stationary figment of the legendary most-enigmatic-man-who-ever-lived. Replete, if not “finished.”
The story goes that having completed careful Latin translations of sacred texts from their original languages, extensive commentaries, and a vast and sometimes polemical correspondence, Jerome (born in modern Dalmatia, active in Rome, France, and Spain, widely traveled in Syria, Palestine, and Egypt) retired with a few friends to a retreat in Palestine. He is typically portrayed either as a scholar in a comfy study (by Dürer, famously), or a hermit in the wilderness (Bellini and others). Although today claimed a “Doctor of the Church,” Jerome was trouble in his time, an independent thinker not entirely welcome in the early church. A complicated and not unworldly man, protected by patrons of great wealth, artists carried him a long way to portray him as a simple ascetic alone in the badlands.
He is said to have died near Bethlehem in the cave supposed to have been the birthplace of Christ, surely the scene of this painting, which recalls the artist’s two coeval Virgin of the Rocks panels, perhaps the best indication of where the completed Saint Jerome might have gone. But the two Virgin panels are decidedly feminine in character, against the knotty masculinity of Jerome. His type became an obsessive theme in Leonardo’s work. He would follow craggy old men in the street, memorize their features, and commit them to paper. The silhouettes sometimes prefigure the artist’s own profile, strikingly handsome in youth, that with years came to echo the father the boy Leonardo knew as an already older man. Perhaps we should little wonder that Leonardo worried this commission so long, in his maddeningly desultory and probing fashion, pleasing no one, and kept it.
Perspective construction isn’t obvious in a setting without architecture, but it is here, and employed to quietly dramatic effect. In proper perspective the horizon line (just visible at the distant sea) is the observer’s eye level, and here it is also the Saint’s. The painter visited the cave. The drama of Jerome is somehow the artist’s own.
An old man alone, all but nude among beasts. In extremis, but not failing. Though he cares nothing for his life, he is vigorous, all-enduring, and not at all done with his mission. He has nothing but his learning and his devotion, yet he punishes himself, thumping his chest with a stone, and he wants something. From the desert? From these barren stones? He has left everything behind. Everything but what he wants to see face to face.