There is just one modestly-sized painting on view in the gallery number 955 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But this is Leonardo da Vinci’s “St. Jerome Praying in the Wilderness” and its draw is immense. In fact, it is nearly impossible to stand in front of it motionlessly for any length of time without being disturbed by fellow museumgoers hastening to do the same.
Yet it is only with fixed gaze one can fully appreciate fluidity and power of expression that da Vinci’s genius afforded his St. Jerome. Renowned as a scholar–St. Jerome translated the Bible to Latin from its original languages–he was frequently and anachronistically portrayed with the attributes of a cardinal. But St. Jerome was also a proponent of monasticism, and it is in this capacity that Leonardo chose to depict him. By stripping the saint of adornments, da Vinci laid bare the intimacy and the anguish of a solitary prayer, making the sacred episode relatable and lifelike.
Of course, the greatness of this work doesn’t lie in Leonardo’s choice of setting or in his decision to portray St. Jerome aged and nearly toothless and bald. Its captivating expressivity is also a result of Leonardo’s invention, a technique that in Italian is called ‘sfumato’ – the blurring of outlines and softening of colors. Applied to the corners of the eyes and mouth– two main features of a face that harbor its expression, it creates an effect of ever-changing animation, which is familiar to anyone who has ever stood, awestruck, in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre.
The painting, which is exhibited on a special loan from the Vatican Museums, is, as many other Leonardo’s works, unfinished. Experiencing it in this work-in-progress state is a unique opportunity to envision the great master in action–down to his fingerprints in fact, which are visible on paint surface in the upper left portion of the painting. Its incompleteness reveals a restless perfectionist who progressed through the painting in stages–honing in on one section while leaving other in a faint outline, a compositional placeholder. Whereas the hand and the beginning of the saint’s arm is just a sketchy under-drawing, everything from the shoulder and above, including the face, is filled with color, which he applied for the softer effect using his fingers.
Unlike other Renaissance artists, Da Vinci wasn’t satisfied with wholesale reliance on the authority of ancient thinkers. A firm believer in empirical knowledge, he explored the secrets of the human body by dissecting corpses and mechanics of flight by spending years observing insects and birds. “The sun does not move,” he wrote in his notebooks, foreshadowing Copernicus and Galileo; driven by the idea that the artist’s job is to explore the visible world, he went further than most. While his scientific foresight is astounding, these pursuits were for him but an expedient to his aim of rendering his subjects with maximum possible vitality.
The Met’s single-painting exhibition, which is a part of the world-wide commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death, has been a roaring success since its opened on July 15; “St. Jerome Praying in the Wilderness” is a lived experience not to be missed.
On view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until October 6, 2019.