When the Italian polymath and Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci swore allegiance to the French king in 1516 and accepted François I’s invitation to make his home in France, he brought with him three of his most famous works. Saint John the Baptisttea Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and his most celebrated painting, mona-lisa – all now hangs in the Louvre in Paris.
Some Leonardo experts, however, suggest he may have arrived in France with another painting – one that remained unfinished – a work that he returned to and improved but never completed, despite keeping it near him for more than 30 years.
The mysterious Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, which Leonardo started some time in the 1480s, rarely leaves its permanent home in the Vatican Museums. Today, however, as the result of an exceptional loan agreement it is on display at the manor house at Clos Lucé – near the former royal château at Amboise on the Loire in western France – where Leonardo lived for just over two years until his death in 1519.
“Five hundred years after Leonardo da Vinci’s death, we will have the painting here for 100 days,” François Saint Bris, whose family owns the Clos Lucé, told the Observe.
“It’s extremely moving for us to have this work loaned to us. This is a singular canvas, a work in progress that comes more alive the more we look at it. In it we see the workings of Da Vinci’s brain, his techniques, his intelligence, his drawing. We hope visitors will come here to contemplate it.”
Fewer than 20 paintings by Leonardo are thought to have survived until now. Saint Jerome in the Wilderness is not the best nor, indeed, the brightest: the gloomy and largely colorless painting depicts the gaunt and penitent fourth-century saint – considered the father of the Christian church – beating his chest with a stone. At the bottom of the canvas the outline of the lion from whose paw Jerome has famously extracted a thorn lies sketched and uncharacteristically ferocious, a change from its usual docile representation.
Saint Jerome, a scholar credited with translating the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into Latin during his years in the desert, was a popular subject during the Renaissance period, symbolizing both humanism and religion. Leonardo stripped him of his usual portrait garb of scarlet cardinal robes, hat and beard and portrayed him with emaciated features in rags and without a Bible.
The work was commissioned while Leonardo was living in Florence in 1481 and remained unfinished when he moved to Milan in 1482. But who commissioned it and why it was never completed remain a mystery. The painting disappeared and resurfaced several times over the centuries and finally turned up in a pawnbroker’s in 1856, where it was acquired by Pope Pius IX.
Guido Cornini, a Vatican curator, said the fact that it was unfinished made it even more interesting to art historians and experts who have used it to unpick many of Leonardo’s techniques and characteristics as an artist.
“You can see the steps of the painting. We don’t know why he stopped. There is a theory that Da Vinci may have kept this painting with him all through his life.
“He might have kept it with him intentionally unfinished, returning to it from time to time, improving it, changing it,” Cornini said. Francesca Persegati, the Vatican Museums curator, said there was evidence that Leonardo had used his fingers to paint one section of the painting. “We can actually see where he pressed the thick paint with his palm and finger. We can imagine the artist actually touching this painting and actually becoming part of the work.”
Barbara Jatta, the director of the Vatican Museums, said the painting had rarely left the permanent collection and only when its integrity and security could be assured. But it had been put on show in Rome, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and at the Louvre in 2019 for the anniversary of the artist’s death.
“There are many reasons for celebrating and sharing a symbolic work of art from the Vatican collection by returning it to the place where it was probably located during the stay and death of the great Leonardo da Vinci in France. Hypotheses and several documents held in Milan lead us, indeed, to believe the painting was at Clos Lucé when he died on 2 May 1519,” Jatta said.
“It is an undisputed masterpiece… it is precisely because of its ‘unfinished’ nature that it is considered one of his most interesting works and is one of the very few paintings by the artist whose authenticity has never been questioned.”
She added: “It was important to bring the painting here to where Da Vinci lived and died. We wanted to make it possible for people to visit the historic place and share not just the history and Da Vinci’s technical artistry but also the figure of St Jerome, one of the fundamental figures of the church, and his life.”
The exhibition of the painting at the Château de Clos Lucé, and of other works linked to Leonardo and Saint Jerome, runs until 20 September. Visitors can tour the castle, including visiting rooms used by Leonardo and galleries illustrating his work as a painter, mathematician, engineer, scientist and inventor.