Saint Jerome in the Wilderness (Leonardo)

Unfinished painting by Leonardo da Vinci

Saint Jerome in the Wilderness is an unfinished painting by Italian Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci, dated c. 1480–1490. The composition of the painting has been drafted in monochrome onto the primed wooden panel. At an unknown date after Leonardo's death, the panel was cut into five pieces before eventually being restored into its original form (minus a very small triangle). Created during Leonardo's last years in Florence, or first years in Milan, the work is now in the Vatican Museums.

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Description

The oil draft of an unfinished painting depicts Saint Jerome in advanced age during his retreat to the Syrian desert, where he lived the life of a hermit. The saint kneels in a rocky landscape, gazing toward a crucifix which can be discerned faintly sketched in at the extreme right of the painting. In Jerome's right hand he holds a rock with which he is traditionally shown beating his chest in penance. At his feet is the lion which became a loyal companion after he extracted a thorn from its paw. The lion, the stone and a cardinal's hat are the traditional attributes of the saint.

On the left-hand side of the panel the background is a distant landscape of a lake surrounded by precipitous mountains shrouded in mist. To the right-hand side, the only discernible feature is a faintly-sketched church, seen through the opening in the rocks. The church's presence may allude to Jerome's position in Western Christianity as one of the Doctors of the Church.

The composition of the painting is innovative for the oblique trapezoid form of the figure of the saint. The angular forms contrast with the sinuous form of the lion which transcribes an "S" across the bottom of the painting. The lion is also a symbol of power and strength associated with the Gospel of Mark which Jerome translated into Latin. The form of Saint Jerome prefigures that of the Virgin Mary in the Virgin of the Rocks. The rendering of the muscles in the neck and shoulders is seen as the first of Leonardo's anatomical drawings.

Interpretation

See also: Personal life of Leonardo da Vinci

Penitence is one of the themes central to religious iconography. Jerome, whose main fame is his translation of the Bible into Latin, the so-called Vulgate, in old age retreated to the wilderness as a penitent. Here, as in any other paintings of this subject, he meditates on the crucified Christ. Beyond the crucifix may be seen the faint image of a church, probably representing vision of the New Jerusalem, the heavenly afterlife to which Jerome aspires.

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