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“Unfinished” (again) at the Met: A Lone Loan of “Jerome” for Leonardo’s 500th Anniversary (video)

Having previously shown a fondness for the non finito in old master paintings, the Metropolitan Museum has made a virtue of necessity by doing it again—relying on a repeat loan (to Oct. 6) from the Vatican Museums of a single unfinished painting by Leonardo da Vinci—“Saint Jerome Praying in the Wilderness”—to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death:

Leonardo da Vinci, “Saint Jerome Praying in the Wilderness,” begun ca. 1483, Vatican Museums
Photo © Governatorato of the Vatican City State–Vatican Museums. All rights reserved

In the press release for its presentation of “Saint Jerome,” the Met describes this painfully intense depiction of anguished self-abnegation, bordering on delirium (in which the emaciated saint is poised to smite his bare chest with a rock), as “one of possibly six paintings whose authorship by Leonardo has never been questioned [emphasis added].”

For me, the passage that most convincingly embodies Leonardo’s familiar refinement and deftness of touch is the recumbent, curly-maned lion, which Met curator of drawings and prints, Carmen Bambach, the organizer of this focus show, confessed was her favorite part of the painting:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

That said, this is not one of Leonardo’s crowd-pleasing portrayals of physical and natural beauty. It’s a tough, uningratiating picture, which (according to the Met’s wall text) “likely served as an aid in prayer and meditation [emphasis added],” although “the patron and circumstances of its production are unknown.”

Since the painting was never finished, let alone delivered to a patron, I asked Bambach if it had “served as an aid in prayer and meditation” for Leonardo himself, who was believed to have kept it in his own possession. The wall text (quoted above) neglects to mention that it remained with Leonardo, thereby leaving the impression that someone else had benefited from using it as “an aid in prayer.”

“It’s an educated hypothesis,” she told me, “to say that this painting, especially because it was not handed over to a patron, probably would have acquired that other function”—a focus for Leonardo’s own worship.

That seems like a stretch: I’m guessing that the wall text should have said that the painting was likely intended as an aid in prayer and meditation, not that it had “served” as such.

For a skeptical non-specialist like me, the uncontested admission of this painting to the pantheon of undisputed Leonardos seems inconsistent with its problematic history: It was “unrecorded by Leonardo’s biographers,” according to the Met’s wall text. And Bambach says this in her timely four-volume magnum opus—Leonardo da Vinci Rediscovered (July 30 publication date):

The St. Jerome’s commission together with the reasons for Leonardo’s interrupted work on it are entirely mysterious….In fact, no author unambiguously records it before 1800. [Leonardo died in 1519.]

Supporting its attribution to the master (but surprisingly unmentioned in the Met’s wall text) is that “Saint Jerome” is thought to have been among Leonardo’s possessions at the time of his death. The evidence for that was laid out to me by Bambach, in response to my query at the press preview:

There are a couple of documents that show that Salai, who was Leonardo’s pupil, was murdered in 1525. We happen to have two documents related to the inventory of his [Salai’s] possessions and “Saint Jerome” is one of the pictures that is mentioned. So we know that the painting stayed with “Leo” [Carmen’s nickname for the artist, not mine].

In his 2017 biography of Leonardo, Walter Isaacson wrote that far from being a mere pupil, “Salai” [more formally, Gian Giacomo Caprotti, whose nickname meant, “Little Devil”] was Leonardo’s “assistant, companion, and amanuensis, and probably, at some point, he became a lover.” Isaacson suggests that the “sticky-fingered little devil” had gotten hold of some of the artist’s paintings (and/or some copies of his paintings) after Leonardo’s death.

“Saint Jerome” had left its modern-day home at the Vatican for display at the Met at least once before, as a highlight of the 2003 landmark survey organized by Bambach and George Goldner, then the Met’s chairman of drawings and prints. The only painting in that drawings show, its image had served as frontispiece for Bambach’s voluminous catalogue:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum, from my copy of the Met’s 2003 catalogue

At the press preview for the current “Saint Jerome” focus exhibition, I was prodded by my long-ago editor, Milton Esterow, to ask Met officials why they came up with just one painting to mark the big Leonardo anniversary.

Milton Esterow, with Leonardo’s “St. Jerome” in background
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Dutifully relaying Milt’s question to Andrea Bayer, deputy director for collections and administration, I got the expected answer: The Louvre’s paintings curator, Vincent Delieuvin, had cornered the market for available Leonardo loans by his early start in organizing the upcoming Leonardo retrospective at his institution. (With five Leonardo paintings and 22 of his drawings in its own collection, the Louvre already had a good core group in hand.)

After his stint at the Met, “Saint Jerome” will be dispatched to the Louvre show (Oct. 24-Feb. 24, 2020). The 2003 Leonardo drawings show, in modified form, had also traveled from the Met to the Louvre.

Just before its installation at the Met, “Saint Jerome” had been the subject of a focus show at its home base, the Vatican Museums, which included information about “its restorations and the diagnostic work recently carried out on it,” according to the Vatican Museums’ wall text (sent to me, at my request, by its press office).

Bambach was able to snare this loan ahead of its Paris sojourn thanks, in part, to her longstanding professional friendship with Vatican curator Guido Cornini, whom she gratefully acknowledged at the Met’s press preview as someone she had known “since we were ragazzi [children]”:

Carmen Bambach, left, with Guido Cornini at the Met press preview
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Here’s how the painting looks in its accustomed setting—Room IX of the Vatican Picture Gallery (where it is ostentatiously installed on the right):

L to R: Raphael, “Transfiguration”; Circle of Antonio Allegri (called Correggio), “The Agony in the Garden”; Antonio Allegri (called Correggio), “Christ the Redeemer”; Polidoro da Caravaggio: “Christ Carrying the Cross” or “Spasimo di Sicilia” (after Raphael); Leonardo’s “Saint Jerome”
2019 Photo © Governatorato SCV–Direzione dei Musei

And here (hot off the presses) is Bambach’s scholarly magnum opus, strategically positioned for the scribe tribe’s perusal at the entrance to the press preview. This 2350-page tour de force was 24 years in the making:

Carmen Bambach, “Leonardo da Vinci Rediscovered,” Yale University Press
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Bambach lost me at the Preface, in which she announced that she has “preferred the Italian-style title in referring to Leonardo’s famous painted portrait, ‘Monna[!?!] Lisa,’ following recent scholarship….In medieval and Renaissance Italy, a woman’s baptismal name preceded by ‘monna’ (an abbreviation of ‘madonna’) was a meaningful form of address for a woman as a sign of respect in secular society.”

Maybe so, but singlehandedly undertaking to rename what’s arguably the world’s most famous painting is sacrilege at worst or a lost cause at best.

The main problem with any single-work display of a celebrated masterpiece is that the throng likely to crowd around it may make it difficult to see it up close and even harder to spend the time needed to examining it carefully, when a crush of visitors is clamoring for a look. Under such conditions, one may be hard-pressed to fully appreciate “the picture’s contemplative dimension” (in the words of the press release), even though it is “displayed in a gallery by itself, starkly illuminated within an otherwise darkened space.”

Even after waiting for most of the press to disperse, I couldn’t discern some of the details that had been described to us—the artist’s fingerprints in the painting’s upper left corner (a common feature in Leonardo’s paintings, intended “to obtain a soft-focus effect,” in the words of Bambach’s Yale-published catalogue); the crucifix on the right (“outlined sketchily in a profile view,” in Bambach’s words), which “Saint Jerome” is said to be prayerfully gazing at.

Here’s a magnified view of the fingerprints. These, in addition to stylistic details, are possible evidence that the painting is (literally) from Leonardo’s hand:

Photo © Governatorato SCV–Direzione dei Musei

What you can clearly see, if you view the painting sideways (so that it’s in raking light), is evidence that the painting had once been cut to isolate what might have been deemed to be its most marketable section—the saint’s sunken fleshed, deeply creased physiognomy:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The Met’s intention to create a contemplative, chapel-like setting for “Saint Jerome” has been sabotaged by the sounds of singing and guitar-playing seeping into this sanctuary from the lower level of the Lehman Wing—the repetitive refrain from the mesmerizing seven-channel video installation of Death Is Elsewhere by Ragnar Kjartansson. (Maybe “Death is Elsewhere” should have been installed elsewhere.)

But enough nitpicking. Any chance to see one of the world’s very few Leonardo paintings is an experience not to be missed. Come join me now at the press preview, as Bambach shares her analysis of “Saint Jerome,” explaining that Leonardo was “famous for not finishing his projects, especially his paintings.” You’ll see Met director Max Hollein to Bambach’s right, as well as a brief glimpse of the Vatican Museums’ grinning curator, Guido Cornini. (Please don’t miss my “NOTE TO MY READERS,” at the bottom if this post.)

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