Leonardo Da Vinci's St Jerome Painting Comes to the Met

The Renaissance master's unfinished painting, Saint Jerome Praying in the Wilderness, will be on display at the Met from July 15 to October 15 on loan from the Vatican Museums.

Leonardo Da Vinci's St Jerome Painting Comes to the Met

To commemorate the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci's death, the Met will display the artist's unfinished painting of St Jerome that still bears the fingerprints of the artist. It will be on view in the Robert Lehman Gallery from July 15 through October 15, 2019

Leonardo da Vinci, St Jerome (begun circa 1482). Photo © Governatorate of the Vatican City State, Vatican Museums, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Leonardo da Vinci, St Jerome (begun circa 1482). Photo © Governatorate of the Vatican City State, Vatican Museums, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The tempera and oil on walnut panel, begun around 1483, depicts an emaciated St Jerome, his face contorted in spiritual agony as he kneels in the desert. Jerome eschewed his classical studies for the life of a hermit in the wilderness, where he dedicated his time to translating the Bible into Latin. He clutches a rock in his right hand, a symbol of penance, and his sinewy frame is representative of da Vinci's focus on anatomy. The saint is always shown with a lion, which is lounging in front of him, who became his companion after he removed a thorn from his paw according to the Golden Legend, compiled in the 13th century.

It is not clear why da Vinci didn't finish this painting, but it was likely intended for a chapel for private worship and meditation. The work reveals da Vinci's artistic process, including how he sketched his subjects before painting them and the use of his fingers to mix paint directly on the panel.

Portrait of Cardinal Joseph Fesch, Charles Meynier. 1806, oil on canvas. Image: Wikipedia
Portrait of Cardinal Joseph Fesch, Charles Meynier. 1806, oil on canvas. Image: Wikipedia

The exact provenance is enigmatic, but the painting was first mentioned in the will of Angelica Kauffman, a Neoclassical artist who helped found the Royal Academy, in 1807. Then it is claimed that the panel was divided in half and the section with the torso of Jerome was found in a Roman shop by Joseph Fesch, a Cardinal and Prince of France, who then reunited it with the other part. Cardinal Fesch was the uncle of Napoleon Bonaparte and a prolific art collector, owning works by Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian and Botticelli. It was later sold to Pope Pious IX, the longest ruling pope whose tenure exceeded 30 years, who gifted the work to the Vatican Museums in the mid-19th century where it has been ever since.

Leonardo da Vinci, St Jerome (begun circa 1482) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. © Governatorate of the Vatican City State, Vatican Museums. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Leonardo da Vinci, St Jerome (begun circa 1482) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. © Governatorate of the Vatican City State, Vatican Museums. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Although Leonardo da Vinci is one of the world's most famous artists, and the most expensive with the $450.3 million sale of Salvator Mundi in 2017, there are only 15 known paintings by him. Just one da Vinci painting, Ginevra de' Benci, is in an American museum at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, so this is a rare opportunity to view a painted masterpiece by the Renaissance genius in the US.

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Cover image: Leonardo da Vinci, St Jerome (begun circa 1482). © Governatorate of the Vatican City State, Vatican Museums. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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