Leonardo da Vinci – St Jerome ca. 1482 (103 x 75cm: Oil on wood panel)
Pinacoteca Room IX, Vatican Museum
Vale Vaticano, 0016, Rome
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This unfinished work by Leonardo da Vinci is regarded as one of his most enigmatic works, raising many questions as to why it was never finished, let alone who it was that commissioned the work or its final destination. The number of questions surrounding this work make it a work to be included in any venture to seek out the more non-traditional or unusual pieces of European art. It was only identified by Angelica Kaufmann in the early nineteenth century as a work of Leonardo.
As the work was painted around the year 1482, Leonardo would have begun it in Florence just before leaving for Milan. The most striking element about this painting is the anatomical detail which is so identifiable with Leonardo’s fascination with the human body. While many other paintings of St Jerome capture his anguish, Leonardo’s knowledge and understanding of the human body takes this anguish to a totally different, and powerfully tangible level. One particular element to which the viewer is drawn is the length of the extended, twisted arm, the hand clutching the rock, with which he is aiming at the lion at his feet (his animal attribute), while the eyes of St Jerome appear to have an upward gaze. Perhaps St Jerome in Leonardo’s eyes could not bear the view the infliction of pain that the rock would render on the lion, represented by open mouth of the lion, almost as a roar.
There is so much more here – the sketch on the right in the opening in the rocks seems to be that of Santa Maria Novella, of Florence; the mountainous landscape in the far left, the dark background which only further highlights the anatomical beauty of St Jerome.
Why was this painting never finished? Did Leonardo never intend to finish it, using it as an experimental piece of painting methods? If it was commissioned, was the commission withdrawn? Perhaps Leonardo intended to return to it at some point, but never did.
Albeit it is unlikely that we will ever know the answers to these or all the questions that this piece presents, it is a work you must see. You will never forget it.