Leonardo's "St. Jerome Praying In the Wilderness"
In commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci, the Vatican Museum has lent the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Leonardo's painting “Saint Jerome Praying in the Wilderness.” While scholars have hotly debated whether many works attributed to Leonardo are indeed his work, St. Jerome is one of only six paintings that has never been questioned.
Leonardo was born in the village of Vinci, then in the Republic of Florence, in 1452. His father, a wealthy notary, and his mother, a peasant woman, never married. As a result, Leonardo had no surname. Da Vinci simply means that he was from Vinci.
He lived first with his mother but later became part of his father's household. His father married several times and as a result, Leonardo had 12 half-brothers and sisters. He received an informal education in a variety of topics while living with his father. The boy's curiosity led him to explore a diverse array of subjects.
One of those subjects was art and at age 14 Leonardo went to work in the studio of Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence. There he came into contact with many of the great Florentine artists of the Renaissance. In addition, he learned not just artistic technique but the chemistry of making paint, leather working and the mechanics of operating a studio. By age 18, he was receiving commissions on his own.
Leonardo developed a reputation as a very talented artist. However, he was a slow worker and never finished many of the works he was commissioned to do. This may be because he did not find them interesting or it could be because he was too busy pursuing other interests such as studying anatomy, engineering and mathematics.
A topic that particularly interested him was military engineering. He seems to have enjoyed designing fortress and defenses for cities. He also created plans for military weapons such as tanks and helicopters that were far beyond the capabilities of the technology of the day.
Accordingly, in 1482, he wrote to the Duke of Milan offering his services as a military engineer. For the next 17 years, he lived and worked in Milan pursuing his various interests including art. It was during this time, that he painted the mural “The Last Supper.”
When the Duke was overthrown at the beginning of the Second Italian War, Leonardo left Milan and over the next several years, he worked chiefly as a military engineer in a number of cities including Venice. He would also return occasionally to Florence where in 1503, he began work on the “Mona Lisa,” which he did not finish until the end of his life.
In 1515, he entered the service of King Francis I of France, doing both military work and art. He became close friends with the king and Francis was by his bedside when Leonardo died in 1519.
Although Leonardo's genius as an artist was recognized during his lifetime, only a handful of his paintings have survived. Consequently, the Metropolitan's decision to mount a one-painting exhibition of “St. Jerome” was well-taken.
The painting was begun when Leonardo was living in Milan. It is not known who commissioned the painting but it is believed that it was probably done as a devotional piece to assist in prayer.
St. Jerome was a Christian saint who was best known for his translation of the Bible and his teachings on Christian moral life, especially how Christian women should live. Towards the end of his life, he lived as a hermit, working out of a cave in Palestine.
Leonardo's painting depicts St. Jerome praying outside his cave. With him is the tame lion that was his companion in the desert. The saint's body is ravaged by age and hardship but his focus is fixed on prayer.
The painting reflects Leonardo's study of anatomy. Leonardo believed that it was important for a drawing to be anatomically correct because the outward gestures of the face and body reflect “the motions of the mind” and the “passion of the soul.” Here, the ravaged face with the bones and muscles straining under the skin conveys the anguish of the saint's devotion.
Inasmuch as the painting is unfinished, it is not as aesthetically pleasing as Leonardo's other paintings. However, as compensation, this painting gives insight into Leonardo's creative process and artistic technique. Parts of the canvas are just the under-drawing while other parts have been fully painted. Thus, Leonardo does not seem to have worked systematically, completing each layer across the entire canvas before proceeding to the next layer. Rather, he completely developed specific areas while others remained just an outline.
The painting has had a troubled past. At some unknown point, it appears to have been sawed into pieces. In the early 19th century, Napoleon's uncle, Cardinal Joseph Fesch, found the various pieces in Rome - - some in an antique shop and some at his shoemaker's. The re-assembled pieces became part of the Vatican collection in 1856.
To present the painting, the Met has devoted an entire gallery in its Robert Lehman wing. The room is kept nearly dark with bright lights on the painting and on two explanatory panels on the opposite wall. This dramatic lighting creates an atmosphere reminiscent of a European cathedral, a setting which adds to the overall experience of viewing this religious work.
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