Sunday, June 27, 2010

Leonardo and St Jerome

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
St. Jerome
c. 1480
Tempera and oil on panel
40 1/8 x 29 1/4 in. (103 x 75 cm)
Musei Vaticani, Rome

This unfinished painting depicts Saint Jerome during his retreat to the Syrian desert, where he lived the life of a hermit

St. Jerome is shown chastising himself for his sins. The expressive anatomical detail of the head and body of the elderly saint is unprecedented.

The image is one of a spiritual athlete. In Jerome`s hand is a rock: to beat himself with. He is a warrior. The aim is to defeat himself and achieve victory over himself.

Jerome was a great scholar throughout his life. Many paintings of Jerome show Jerome safely ensconced in a comfortable study surrounded by books like a Renaissance gentleman.

This is different. Here knowledge gained through books and study was being put into practice, being incarnated into living experience.

The setting is the desert, far from the City (but the City is in the distance). One is reminded of the time of others in the desert: Moses, St John the Baptist, and Jesus himself.

The late Father Edmund Felix Sutcliffe S J, once the Old Testament Professor at Heythrop College explained:

"Jerome had a natural ardour for study and learning, but he subordinated this to a higher supernatural zeal and devotion to the written Word of God.

In his prefaces he manifests his reliance on the power of prayer to help him to write on the Scriptures in the same spirit as that in which they were written.

That was his impelling motive; to make them better known and better understood. ...

The lifelong labours of Jerome all bear witness to his ardent devotion to Holy Scripture. For him 'knowledge of the Scriptures' means 'the riches of Christ' and 'ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ'.

Hence his exhortations to his correspondents: 'I beg you, dear brother, live with them, meditate on them, make them the sole object of your knowledge and inquiries.'

And to a priest:' Frequently read the divine Scriptures; rather, never let the sacred text out of your hands. Learn what you have to teach... The speech of a priest should be seasoned with the words of Scripture.'

'Make knowledge of the Scriptures your love and you will not love the vices of the flesh' {ep. 125. 11).

And in the explanation of the Scriptures, he reminds his readers, we always stand in need of the Spirit of God"
From Father Edmund Felix Sutcliffe S J, Jerome, in Chapter 4 The Cambridge History of The Bible Volume II (1969)

Jerome was a scholar and an ascetic saint and not a martyr. Although aging he was toiling to become a better person. There was no state of stasis for Jerome in this world. The painting is a reminder that strife and reformation is never over.

The original client for whom the painting was intended is unknown. It was discovered in the nineteenth century. Apparently Cardinal Fesch (uncle of Napoleon) found parts of the work in a number of pieces being used in various shops in Rome. The panel was re-assembled. That is the story anyway. The panel was sold by the descendants of Cardinal Fesch to Pope Pius IX, who installed  it in the Pinacoteca Vaticana