Have you ever seen an old man with the body of a youth who
has a lion for a pet?
Look no further than Leonardo’s St Jerome.
painting is obviously unfinished, but it exudes a powerful presence despite, or
perhaps because of, the sketchy appearance. This work forces the viewer to use
their imagination to complete the narrative and drama promised by the picture.
Leonardo’s treatment of Jerome’s years in the wilderness depicts the saint,
clean shaven and down on one knee. His traditional attribute, the lion, fills the
foreground of the picture. A muscular arm holds a rock in readiness for penance
as the saint beats his own breast. The head is similar to Leonardo’s anatomical
studies of the head and neck of an old man and is quite skeletal in its
appearance. Jerome’s gaze is drawn towards a crucifix which is sketched on the
upper right of the picture (this is quite difficult to see).
The landscape is typical Leonardo, as is
the unfinished figure of the Saint who is portrayed as an ascetic, living his
life in the desert or countryside, and devoting his life to God. Jerome spent
the last thirty-four years of his life living in a hermit's cell near
Bethlehem. His translation of the Old Testament from the original Hebrew is one
of his greatest works and resulted in his canonisation by the Catholic Church.