Leonardo’s St. Jerome (c.1488-90)

Leonardo's unfinished painting of St. Jerome in the Desert is novel in several ways. Although the lion is Jerome's traditional attribute and helps identify him, the animal had never been made so large before or so prominent. Its sweeping tail, moreover, is so exceedingly long that it cannot just be an element of design. It draws too much attention to itself.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Leonardo da Vinci, St. Jerome (c.1488-90) Unfinished. Tempera and oil on walnut panel. Vatican Museums, Rome

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The lion's head is a type Leonardo often used as on the breastplate of this early drawing of a warrior.1 It is not known, however, that in both cases the lion (leo in Latin) represents Leonardo and his ferocious courage. The warrior's face is also a type Leonardo used throughout his career.2 It is the elderly alter ego of the 30-something Leonardo, aged to represent his wisdom but dressed to do battle with art.3 The man's head, the lion and the armor are all metaphorical while the lion plays on his name as well. Remember other artists like Giorgione and Rembrandt donned armor in paintings too and for the same purpose.4 Now back to St Jerome.  

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Captions for image(s) above:

Leonardo, Bust of a Warrior in Profile (c.1475-80) Silverpoint on paper. British Museum, London

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The lion with the paintbrush-like tail is "Leonardo" facing his "painting of St. Jerome" as Leonardo would have.5 That is why the lion is so prominent. Yet the aged Jerome has a youthful body, an inconsistency not always noted.6 The age of Jerome's head, like the warrior's, signifies wisdom while his youthful arm extended like a painter's to the edge represents Leonardo's ability to wrestle and do battle with images.7 A straight line runs from Jerome's hand through his right eye and onto a just-visible crucifix near the sunlit space on the right.8 This conveys that craft (hand) combined with spiritual insight (right eye) will reveal God's presence (crucifix) in Leonardo, in man and in nature.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Leonardo da Vinci, St. Jerome (c.1488-90)

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The rock formation in St. Jerome (left) is like that in the London Virgin of the Rocks (right).9 As I explain elsewhere those caves represent the artist's mind as an ancient "skull" with the Virgin and Christ inside. In Jerome (left) too the space on the upper left is an orbital cavity (or eye-hole) as is the smaller one on the right with his own church design in it.10 In both Virgin of the Rocks as in Jerome too, the left-hand cavity is larger, somewhat rectangular and has phallic-like rocks in the centre. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

L: Leonardo da Vinci, St. Jerome (c.1488-90)
R: Leonardo, Virgin of the Rocks

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This scene, then, is inside Leonardo's mind (a crumbling, ancient skull) with a mental image of the lion as the "artist" in front of his "painting" of St. Jerome. Leonardo has depicted the creative moment of the painting's own conception which is why the lion's tail encircles a rock in visual imitation of an inner eye. This, we know too, was the very period, when Leonardo physically searched for the soul's location in the skull.11 The saint's arm, in turn, beats himself as a metaphor for "painting himself", a process of rigorously ascetic self-examination culminating in the revelation of his inner divinity, allegorically depicted as the crucifix in his skull.  





 

Captions for image(s) above:

Leonardo da Vinci, St. Jerome (c.1488-90)

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Notes:

1. Cecil Gould, Leonardo: The Artist and Non-Artist (New York Graphic Society) 1975, p. 43

2. The same facial type can be seen, most notably, in his early Adoration of the Magi (1481), on Judas in The Last Supper (1495-8) and even much later and most significantly as his own face in his late presumed Self-portrait drawing (c.1510). It can also be seen in numerous other drawings as well including the Five Grotesque Heads and Old Man Seated in Right Profile both at Windsor Castle, the Bearded Old Man in Half-Length at New York's Metropolitan Museum and even, a touch younger, in Vitruvian Man in the Accademia, Venice.

3. In Leonardo's time age had long been associated with wisdom as it still is in the East and, more than we often recognize, in the West too. There is no way that Leonardo's face, even in his late thirties, could have conveyed such profound knowledge without alternate symbols. I believe I am correct in saying that to convey wisdom on a nude body in the desert, Leonardo had to use an old man's face.

4. See Giorgione's engraving Self-portrait as David (c.1510) and Rembrandt's Self-portrait with a Gorget (c.1629).

5. You will find several examples of "leonine" painters under the theme Artist as Animal in which the artists use lions and their furry paws and tails to represent their paintbrush, including works by PeruginoLucas Cranach the Elder and several by Albrecht Dürer. Long after Leonardo, George Stubbs and Eugène Delacroix did likewise perhaps even referring back to Leonardo himself. Titian sometimes used a dog's paw for the same purpose, as did Diego VelazquezPierre Bonnard and many others still to be revealed.

6. David Alan Brown noted the inconsistency in an exhibition catalogue last year (2011) suggesting that Leonardo was trying to express Jerome's inner beauty through a young man's body and that his saint was both real (the head) and ideal (the body.) That could have been Leonardo's explanation for the patron. Neither Cecil Gould nor David Alan Brown mention the inconsistency in their monographs on Leonardo. Gould, op. cit. in note 1; Brown, Leonardo da Vinci: Origins of a Genius (New Haven: Yale University Press) 1998 

7.Michael Fried has argued that Renaissance and Baroque paintings with a single half-length figure reaching towards the edge of the image are often substitutes for the artist even though in his examples they do not appear to be painters. He claims the actual artist is looking in a mirror set up at a right-angle to the easel. They then turn their head to look in the mirror (that is, out at us in the painting) to paint their portrait. What we then see in the painting is what the artist saw in the mirror. Fried, The Moment of Carvaggio, A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts (Princeton University Press) 2010, pp. 1-16. It is worth noting that, two years after Leonardo, Michelangelo also depicted an artist as an old man throwing a stone in his early Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs (c.1492) as Rembrandt did too in his early Stoning of St. Stephen (1625).

8.The line between the hand and the crucifix through St. Jerome's right eye is discussed in Leonardo da Vinci (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art) 2011, pp. 136, 139.

9. For the link to Leonardo's own church designs, see Scott Nethersole in Leonardo da Vinci (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art) 2011, p. 139.

10. The use of Leonardo's church design to indicate his eye is similar to how Manet used Goya's motif of a bull-fight in Mlle V. in the Costume of an Espada (1861) to indicate a painting by Goya. Note also that the etymology of an orbital cavity, the empty space in the skull for an eye, is derived from the word cave.

11. C. C. Bambach, Leonardo da Vinci: Master Draughtsman (New York: Metropolitan Museum) 2003, p. 372; Luke Syson, "Body and Soul: St. Jerome in Penitence" in Leonardo da Vinci (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art) 2011, p. 136

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